"I LEFT FOR Paris the following October," says Jacques Demy, staring pensively but warmly at the camera. "First I studied filmmaking, was out of work, then was a filmmaker. Then I met a woman filmmaker. We made a few films, then she gave me a fine son, and now I paint."
This is French filmmaker Demy's ultra-concise way of summarizing the final 40 years of his life. During that span he had produced dozens of films, including the extraordinary, completely sung 1963 tour de force "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," which starred Catherine Deneuve and featured a memorable musical score by Michel Legrand.
Demy's on-camera reverie occupies only a minute or so at the very end of "Jacquot," the affectionate film memoir by his widow and fellow filmmaker Agnes Varda.
But that small allotment of time for Demy's life's work seems about the right proportion, because from the outset Varda has said that her purpose was not to chronicle Demy's death in 1990 at age 59 after a long battle with leukemia, nor to celebrate the high points of his creative career.
Varda even makes only the most fleeting references to her own relationship with Demy -- the few words quoted above plus some prefatory close-up scanning of one of her husband's oil paintings showing the two of them lying nude on a beach, with Demy's voice-over intoning a tribute to their spiritual closeness.
Rather, she insists, this is "a film about a remarkable child."
Varda puts the film together in small clips. Structurally, this often seems the cinematographic equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle, with unintelligible individual pieces giving off hints of a larger meaning as they are assembled first into subgroups, then later into whole sections of identifiable subject matter.
But the narrative aspects of the film kept reminding me of thumbing at random through a detailed family photo album in which the still photos miraculously come to life.
Varda leaps around a lot, with a caricature of a hand pointing right indicating a flash-forward in time, and a few seconds later pointing left for the flashback. Most of the flash-forward sequences are clips from the adult Demy's films (1955 to 1983). This presents the eye with frequent switching from black-and-white to color film, adding to the sense of time travel.
There are scenes from the life of Jacquot Demy (diminutive French nickname for Jacques) from about age 9 in Nantes, France, through adolescence. These clips span the years from about 1940 to 1950 and offer some incidental but essential observations on the violence and displacement of World War II, the Nazi occupation of France and their effects on Demy's values.
Three young actors portray Jacquot's physical, intellectual and spiritual growth seamlessly, chronicling his early fascination with puppet theaters and his inquisitiveness about mechanical things.
First expressed through a gift phonograph and some Charles Trenet records, Jacquot's attention quickly turns to a borrowed hand-crank projector and film, then a gift electric projector, a bartered movie camera and a series of failures followed by progressively more successfully made animated movies.
Jacquot's mother encourages his creativity, but his father, an auto mechanic, insists he learn a trade at school. With the eventual endorsement of some credentialed filmmakers, paternal resistance is finally overcome and Jacquot goes off to film school in Paris.
Tensions among peers and within the family are well-drawn by a cast of little-known actors who, like the three Jacquots, may never make an international splash but who respond to Varda's affectionate yet disciplined direction to turn in fine performances.
The pastiche nature of this film may tend to hide the wealth of subtle detail that Varda injects, but viewed from a distance it is remarkably clear in sketching the persistence, inventiveness and sense of mission in Demy's early years.
Rating: *** 1/2
Agnes Varda's film about the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy (1931-1990). In French, English subtitles.
Rated PG, opens today in the Amherst Theater.