In most discernible ways, the respective bodies of work of the long-married French Left Bank filmmakers Agnès Varda (1928-2019) and Jacques Demy (1931-1990) have remained quite distinct from one another. Unlike some other notable filmmaking couples (like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, for instance), Varda and Demy rarely worked on each other’s films in any meaningful capacity, and their differences as artists are compounded by some key distinctions in approach. Despite her singularity, we tend to celebrate Varda’s work for its versatility, rather than for its continuity — she excelled at a wide variety of cinematic forms, emotional tones and disparate subject matters, ranging from adventurous portraiture (Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond) to corrosive, feminist satire (Le bonheur) to low-key, personal documentary (Uncle Yanco, Mur Murs).
Demy, in contrast, almost resembles classical auteurs like Hawks or Hitchcock in terms of how easily one might synthesize the kinds of images and concerns which reoccur constantly throughout his work. He made exuberant musicals which were almost always scored by Michel Legrand, and almost always indebted in some way to classic Hollywood musicals — though this attempt to appropriate American forms peculiarly made his films feel even more French than they would have otherwise. Even Demy’s non-musical films like Lola (1961) and Model Shop (1969) display a penchant for recycling the same characters within a grand, intertextual universe, as well as an abiding interest in provincial, seaside life.
In spite of these important distinctions between Varda and Demy as filmmakers, one quality that’s always struck me as being present in both of their cinemas is a kind of beautifully relaxed and holistic treatment of art and artists. Both directors seem to provide us with a vision of the world in which anyone may be an author or a creator of some kind, and both are equally interested in these kinds of amateur artists, from the countercultural figures of Varda’s California documentaries to the storybook worlds of Demy in which characters emote through the stylized lyricism of song and dance. This utopian vision of a world in which art belongs to everyone comes to the fore in The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993), Varda’s wonderful (and woefully underseen) documentary about the quarter-century anniversary of Demy’s great musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort /The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).
For many people, Demy’s 1967 masterpiece has attained a kind of special status among beloved films; it somehow seems to loom larger than Demy’s other movies, though he made plenty of great ones. I include myself in this category, as the film has long been an all-time favorite of mine. Perhaps this special affinity many of us have for the film is related to its extreme tonality. In contrast to Demy’s earlier operetta, the melancholic and tragic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which he also made in collaboration with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Legrand, Rochefort is almost freakishly joyous and exuberant. It’s also a much more ambitious project than Cherbourg in a number of ways, including as it does choreographed dance numbers and lyrics written in alexandrines (rhyming couplets). For such a happy film, though, a veil of sadness has fallen over the project: the film’s co-star Françoise Dorléac (Deneuve’s real-life sister, who plays her twin in the film) died in a car accident shortly after the film’s premiere.
Varda’s The Young Girls Turn 25 documents the celebrations that arose in the city of Rochefort on the occasion of the original film’s anniversary. It does a good job showing us both the special regard many have for the film, as well as what has remained beautiful about the movie many years after its initial release. Varda pays close attention to the ways in which the cinephilia surrounding the movie has seeped into ordinary, day-to-day life there: we see a kindergarten teacher who has his young students color-in pages inspired by the film. Best of all is a local woman that Varda interviews on the street, who states, “There are works that are part of my life. Books like Elie Wiesel’s The Testament, music like Bach’s cello suites, and two films: Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. In fact, when I travel or I’m away from home, I take along the cassette of The Young Girls of Rochefort. That’s not a plug. It’s my life.”
The intense ways in which Rochefort is shown to have mingled with and touched the daily lives of these people seems to transgress the boundaries of standard-issue cinephilia. In a way, this blurring of the movie world and the mundane one that we inhabit might be seen as another version (or a refrain of) the ways in which art and music become a regular, vital part of the character’s lives in the original Demy film. It’s a testament to Demy’s achievement that people want to keep the film nearby, carry it with them, or integrate it into their lives in ways that are meaningful. It’s an inclination toward delirious love that I can’t help but feel myself, and which Varda’s portrait — celebratory and wistful in equal measure — captures beautifully.
Join us tomorrow, September 8, at 7 pm for a virtual conversation on the incomparable filmmaker/artist Agnès Varda hosted by A Place for Film podcast hosts David Carter and Elizabeth Roell with IU Media School Associate Professor Joan Hawkins. This special virtual event is an extension of IU Cinema’s fall 2019 series Agnès by Varda.
The Young Girls Turn 25 and its parent film, The Young Girls of Rochefort, are both currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, as are a number of additional films by Varda and Demy.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.