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October Post: Demy, Varda and Our Reception of Styles

I don’t like labels that classify you and file you away as a little ‘romantic.’ Perhaps Lola was romantic, but Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is not a romantic film. It’s a very realistic film. It’s about a young love affair that is broken up by the Algerian War. The people are very realistic and have plenty of problems and in the end their life is destroyed as a result of the Algerian War. It’s a very cruel film and a very realistic one; when they find each other again at the end there’s nothing possible for them any longer, their lives are quite different, they’ve gone different ways. And so because there is music and color and it’s a charming film, a poetic one…" Jacques Demy in 1972

“The idea that there could be an autonomous language game consisting entirely of non-inferentially elicited observation reports, whether reports of environmental stimuli or even reports of the contents of one’s own mind is a radical mistake. Making a report or a perceptual judgement is doing something that is essentially and not just accidentally has all the significance of making available a premise for reasoning, for drawing conclusions. Learning to observe requires learning to infer. Experience and reasoning are two sides of one coin, two capacities presupposed by concept use that are in principle intelligible only in terms of their relation to each other.” Robert Brandom, “What Is Philosophy", 2022

One of the many barriers to a fuller comprehension and appreciation of aesthetics is an unconscious failure to acknowledge it as integral to the experience of human creation.

There are at least a couple of reasons for this failure: firstly, an obsession with the distinction between what we call fact with all the heavy stolidity of that word and concept and what we call the imaginary or unreal, and, secondly, a lack of general education into how most human creations possess choice and contingency.

Part of that contingency concerns the particularity of our possibly innate and intrinsic preferences and desires and the incredibly dense interaction of these with the circumstances of the era in which we happen to find ourselves, and the external world most broadly construed.

Varda and Demy

I want to discuss the remarkable married couple of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy in this regard, not the personal qualities of their relationship but the fact that two of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century happened to be married to one another and, moreover, that the cumulative creations of both filmmakers encompasses the widest breadth of modern style and practice in filmmaking most generally.

Agnes Varda was one among the many incredible filmmakers I was blessed to meet over the past thirty odd years. I have mentioned this meeting before but here again is her autograph of the Criterion Edition of her Cleo From 5 to 7. (And a lingering wish that the autograph here was one of its star pictured here - Corrine Marchand.)

Of course at large public events like this screening with Agnes Varda we cinephiles engage in lots of discussion. One most distinguished professor made an assertion to me in great confidence, in hushed tones, that he "sure liked Varda's films because they are so vital and important, not like the lightweight second rate films of her late husband. She is so serious and he was a real lightweight."

It is most hard to offend me, yet this one utterance was about as offensive as something verbal could be as far as I was concerned. It was not so much that I deeply love, without reservation, Demy's films; it is that the kind of aesthetic hierarchy about which my interlocutor was most frank is to me one of the worst kinds of hierarchies that humans create and, alas, one of the most common. (Just look at the fortunes of movies at the Academy Awards decade after decade i.e. Moonlight over La La Land )

My inward response to this man (I mainly listened rather than argued) is thoroughly rooted in my own personal biography and tastes. When the first woman I ever fell in love with was on the big screen and it was Catherine Deneuve and the film in question was a revival of Demy's Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, at the Paris Theatre in New York City in 1973 to be exact, there really isn't any way for me to be alienated from Demy's films or dislike them.

At that time I was not yet aware than Catherine Denueve and I shared the same birthdate of this very month of October 22. I will turn 56 and she 80.

Here are partial lists of both filmmaker's works; they reflect the handful of personal favorites of each and are not meant to be complete.

Umbrellas Of Cherbourg

The Young Girls Of Rochefort

Donkey Skin

Model Shop

Lady Oscar

A Room In Town

Cleo From 5 to 7

One Sings The Other One Doesn't

Lion's Love


The Gleaners And I

The World Of Jacques Demy

One can immediately begin to see the imitative preferences begin to emerge, by which I mean the process whereby large groups of people congregate around preferred subject matters as well as styles - in the case of Varda, matters we would call more "serious" than other matters.

The subjects of Vagabond, One Sings The Other One Doesn't, or The Gleaners And I - issues of community, the plight of the homeless or the poor, the history of the Women's Movement, restoration of archival stuff from the past for continuity and preservation into the future, different cultures inside France - might all seem simply more "important" than Demy's figures singing and dancing while clad in bright, pastel, tight clothing, however fabulous the dancing or the singing.

And if we merely stick to the case of those songs and dances it is undeniable that through his collaboration with Michel Legrand, Demy worked with one of the greatest exponents of a jazz influenced instrumental music and songwriting.

Both Cherbourg and Rochefort are like jazz operas.

Late in his career Demy would work with another giant of French and later, Hollywood, music - Michel Colombier - in Demy's Une Chamber en Ville.This cinematic opera concerns a severe labor strike, further calling into question habitual desires to pigeonhole either Demy "light". Both Demy and Varda each have qualities of the other and both are interested at different times in fairy tales as well as documentations.

The Young Girls Of Rochefort is perhaps Demy and Legrand's deepest excursions into outright jazz writing for the cinema. It has up tempo numbers that swing with and instruments and has in the ballad "You Must Believe in Spring", what has become a modern jazz standard. To my knowledge the best version comes from Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, though there are many other good covers.

Image: The Young Girls Of Rochefort, Catherine Deneuve and her sister, Francoise Dorleac pictured here

Yet in thinking about Demy and Varda as a filmmaking couple I could never begin to emphasize enough the mutual support, respect and love each had for the other's creations. There are even commonalities: Varda's work could at times be most imaginative and even fantastical and Demy's could be concerned with social justice and the lower economic classes - as in his Une Chamber en Ville.

Agnes Varda could be as fantastical as any anti-naturalistic filmmaker.

Take the singing sequence in Cleo, the wildness or as Varda would call it "freedom" of many of the characters' behavior in Lion's Love. Likewise, note Demy's own comments from the outset of this post about the Algerian War as a primary cause of the action in Cherbourg, and his overall commitment to in his own word "realism" in the above quote for example.

Then there is the fact that my favorite of Demy's films, Model Shop, is deeply involved with location shooting - in Los Angeles of 1968/'69 no less (and making the film one influence upon Tarnatino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) and what many consider documentary styles.

One of its main characters as played by Anouk Aimee works in a kind of erotic entertainment of the era as in the shop form the film's title and the rock band Spirit plays themselves throughout the film. Above all, the specter of the Vietnam War is most explicit and hangs over the Gary Lockwood character (as to whether his number will come up for the draft).

Of course it is also a film "about" love like so many of Demy's films.

If an alien intelligence were to want a selection of films that represented best cinema you could not do better than to restrict your examples to the oeuvre of both Demy and Varda so good was their collective output. Indeed you could pretend that the United States nor Hollywood ever existed in your report to the alien, though of course that would be an impossibility in terms of the immense influence of both on the two French filmmakers.

As Agnes Varda emphasized in her discussion of her Lion's Love in this extraordinary television with Susan Sontag in 1969 below, she considers her own film "classical."

Model Shop and Lions' Love feel like two parts of a single, spousal film; both Demy and Varda made them in the same year of 1969 in Los Angeles.

You can see below a photo of one of my lobby cards of Model Shop.

Model Shop Lobby Card from Mitch's Personal Collection

If there is a film that better expresses a greater part of the meaning of male heterosexual desire more generally I do not know of one.

I feel that Demy's bisexuality might play a role in this execution but cannot know for sure. Model Shop is above all a film of utmost sensuality. The travel set pieces in Los Angeles - as Gary Lockwood becomes further and further enchanted by Anouk Aimee as he drives around town to follow her - I have always thought far more interesting than Hitchcock's Vertigo with Jimmy Stewart following of Kim Novak.

This is of course a personal preference on my part and even this particularity and peculiarity doesn't lessen my admiration for Vertigo.

In the following brief excerpt from Agnes Varda's LIONS LOVE we see Varda's use of both herself as well as filmmaker Shirley Clarke in a dramatic scene with a blend of fiction and documentary.

There is a brief monologue from Gary Lockwood wherein he discusses the greatness, from his point of view, of Los Angeles. In this scene he is hanging out with the band Spirit who contributed to the score as well as the feel of the film.

"I was driving down Sunset and I turned down one of the roads that leads up in to the Hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city, it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated here. I was really moved by the geometry of the place. Its conception, its Baroque geometry. It's a fabulous city. To think some people claim it's an ugly city when it's really pure poetry it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something, you know what I mean?"

For the longest time I had a buried feeling that I might have love for Los Angeles, a love that of course would and could not be expressed so long as I was anchored in the Northeastern part of these United States. It was a revelation to discover this sentiment so explicitly and eloquently expressed in Model Shop.

One of the most important aspects of the films of Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda is not that they are both deeply and characteristically French, nor that they were both excellent filmmakers who happened to be married to one another, nor that both worked in the most varying of styles and forms. It is rather the fact that both were supremely aesthetic filmmakers.

For them aesthetics comes first.

Both are united by a sense of the playful and this sense of "play" is their mutual entry to communicating matters most serious in the end.

We will never live in a world in which people will not be moved by and act on behalf of deep and abiding aesthetic preferences or tastes. Own a very real sense then my interlocutor from the screening was expressing one of the main reasons that art exists in the world to begin with, so that it can confirm as much as construct the identity of certain tastes or preferences. These in turn will form one partial partial consensus or another for a time, only to be overturned at a later date by some other, opposing consensus.

Jacques Demy might be all the rage now because of the apparent influence on Greta Gerwig's Barbie.

One of the central reasons that for quite a long time we had some kind of universal education to begin with was to secure continuity of certain kinds of appreciations. This is in tension of course with the goal of creating a particular kind of a certain, desired future, since the latter might move societies to lessen the presence of art from the past that appears to complicate or compromise the goal of said future.

Art concerns our humanness and this in turn is a concern with sensory and affective attention. These should be matters of significance in their own right and not only or always wedded to an action or a goal. And, as Brandom suggests in the lecture from last year, experiencing is not divorced from reasoning. We receive works of art with all the subjective inferences that such reception entails.

My interlocutor looks for the word of art to do one thing and I look to it to do another.

I feel it would be most sad if the deliberation or conviction that one must act upon any prior experience were ever allowed to cripple our capacity to cherish experience, or at least the experience in which the force of feeling and sense is our concern.

That is only one way I could begin to express one important goal for this podcast.

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Beautiful work Mitch!

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