“French director Jacques Demy didn’t just make movies—he created an entire cinematic world.” So say the good folks at Criterion over at the page for the recently released box set of perhaps the most undervalued member of the French New Wave. Demy stood out compared to the rest of the movement, insofar as he embraced a lot of Hollywood cliches—storybook romances, melodrama, musicals (quelle horreur!). But at his best, Demy did all that while subverting audience expectations.
It’s nearly impossible to describe a Demy film without going gaga over the color schemes in his films. Brilliant, bright and bold (to say the least), his color films can sometimes blind the viewer with their sheer candy-colored exuberance. But this set proves that he wasn’t only interested in musicals and technicolor spectacle. Two of the six feature films herein (“Lola” and “Bay of Angels”) are black and white; on the surface, they appear to belong more to the French New Wave than to his more characteristic work.
Demy was something of an outlier with respect to the new wave of the ’50s and ’60s. If Godard was the experimentalist, Truffaut the humanist, and Chabrol the master of the thriller, then it’s only fair to describe Demy as a fantasist. But the six films in the set reveal depths that otherwise would be obscured. Mostly uninterested in the formal experimentation that define many of his contemporaries, he did his own thing, and audiences now have a chance to really dive in, thanks to Criterion.
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Also of note is Demy’s love for the ladies. His marriage to Agnès Varda (who survived Demy’s death from AIDS in 1990) seemed like a match made in movie nerd heaven. The women in his films were complex, smart, interesting and sexually confident: Most the female characters from his oeuvre still hold up today. He made Catherine Deneuve a star and also worked with Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau in their prime, gifting them all with wonderful roles. His films not only passed the Bechdel test, but flew by with flying colors.
Below we examine the six films given essential status by Criterion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Perhaps one of the earlier iterations of crisscrossing, interconnected lives through fate, chance and love (think the early films of Alejandro Innaritu), Demy’s approachable debut “Lola” was distinctly different from his French New Wave contemporaries, eschewing their clipped and film-grammar bending realism for something much more romantic, fanciful and dreamy. Described as a “musical without the music” and a paean to the great German long-take director Max Ophuls, the lyrical and ultimately wistful “Lola” is at once a humanist drama and a romantic heartbreaker for its cast of characters. The movie focuses on but is not limited to its titular character (played by Anouk Aimée), a cabaret singer and dancer longing for the return of her long-lost absentee lover and father to her child who flew the coop to America seven years prior to make it rich. During this period, Lola (the stage name used by the character Cecile) encounters the restless Roland (Marc Michel) by chance, a childhood friend and ex-boyfriend who quickly becomes infatuated with her after initially rebuffing her advances. Complicating matters, Lola is also courted by the American sailor Frankie (Allan Scott) whom she occasionally sleeps with, before realizing he isn’t a source of stability either. Meanwhile, Roland has also met the lonesome widow Madame Desnoyer (Elina Labourdette) and her superbly charming teenage daughter, also called Cecile. She’s quite taken with him, but Roland is indifferent beyond his platonic interest in the plucky adolescent. A chronicle of longing and the painful ironies of unrequited love, “Lola” is a striking debut; Demy’s best outside of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” He later took many of these ideas and infused them into a masterful musical (perhaps “Lola” was the test-run for the picture). Ultimately fate intervenes, cracking the romantic notions of some characters and tearfully fulfilling the long ache of others. “Lola” defines the bittersweetness of life; a melancholy end for the unfortunate, and a new beginning for the lucky gal.
“Bay of Angels” (1963)
This gambling noir film is more akin—visually at least—to Jean-Pierre Melville’s pre-Nouvelle Vague “Bob le flambeur” than to Demy’s celebrated later films. While it’s lacking the candy-colored confectionery style he’d soon embrace with his next feature, there is already ample evidence here of his knack for knowing exactly how and where to move the camera to maximum effect, only here he employs a black-and-white palette perfectly suited to the material. It’s as much a cautionary tale as a wild at heart romance, set amidst the smoky, booze-filled roulette tables and sun-dappled beaches of southern France. The lovers are played by Claude Mann (“Army of Shadows”) and the irreplaceable Jeanne Moreau (“Jules and Jim,” “The Bride Wore Black”), who become attached via their lust for gambling. Mann is a bored but pragmatic every man who ditches his humdrum life as a banker to perpetually vacation in Nice, a popular gambling spot. Not long after he’s embroiled with Moreau’s character, a serious addict, and the rest of the film plays out in a series of romantic and financial ups and downs. There’s a bit too much repetitive montaging (anytime Michel Legrand’s soaring piano score kicks in, you can count on another shot of the roulette wheel spinning over shots of money exchanging hands) and the film pushes too hard for a romantic finale (Demy goes more for the heart here as opposed to his more hardened and realistic subsequent musicals), but ‘Angels’ works for the most part. Without it and the aforementioned Melville gambling film, you wouldn’t have PTA’s “Hard Eight.”
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964)
We already listed this “heart-on-sleeve romantic musical” as one of the 15 best Palme d’Or winners in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, so it’s safe to say we are big fans of Demy’s most famous and accomplished work. It really is something to behold, even for this writer who’s not exactly a fan of musicals. But even my wet blanket dries up every time I seen this heartbreaking rumination on young love and the cruel hand of fate tearing it apart. Visually, Demy reached a whole new level here; the brightly colored sets and costumes look as if the director opened up a bag of skittles, melted them down and splashed them across every frame. But the bubble gum pop art look, effective in conjuring a movie-world reminiscent of the old Hollywood style Demy was so enamored by, is something of a ruse, obscuring the gut-punch tragedy that’s unfolding right before our eyes, until it’s too late and the audience is left in a puddle of tears. It’s sad stuff, but getting there is an utter delight in the hands of Demy, here working for the first time with legend Catherine Deneuve in a role that perfectly utilizes her natural innocence and beauty. ‘Umbrellas’ takes on new meanings with every viewing: my first time I found it to be the saddest film I’ve ever seen; upon a second viewing, it seemed a more realistic take on the perils of falling hard in love so early in life (the conclusion felt less tragic and more pragmatic); the third time, I loved the whimsy and heartbreak, each element conjoining in a truly complex exploration on the fleeting, fluid nature of love and its often tough-to-swallow consequences. Did I mention every line of dialogue is sung?“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is truly magical.
“The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967)
There’s a lot to admire in Demy’s follow-up to what would prove to be his career zenith, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: He feels even more liberated telling this story on an even bigger canvas (literally, shooting in scope to take advantage of super widescreen framing, all the better to show off all the film’s dancing); the near-wordless opening ten minutes or so is a masterclass in setting up themes, characters, setting and tone, in a musical, no less; Hollywood legend Gene Kelly gets several moments to be awesome; and the women of the film are all sexually confident, smart, talented and driven to make their own way in the world. But in the end, ‘Rochefort’ is a much more traditional musical than ‘Umbrellas’. What’s impressive, in retrospect, is how Demy stands out in this fertile period of French cinema. While the rest of his New Wave contemporaries’ work was getting more experimental, political and outré, this film now feels fresh for embracing old-fashioned styles as opposed to razing them to the ground. The colors here are more pastel-heavy, with the wardrobe addressing the mod moment afoot in fashion at the time.‘Rochefort’is a very good film that simply pales in comparison next to its predecessor.
“Donkey Skin” (1970)
Certainly one of the weirder fairy tales ever written, let alone filmed, Demy’s ”Donkey Skin” is an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s (of “Cinderella” fame) unnatural love folk fable Peau d’Âne. Incestuous and bizarre, the film’s oddness is adapted straight from the text, so perhaps Demy’s only faux pas is considering it for the screen: A King (Jean Marais) has everything, a beautiful wife (Catherine Deneuve), a magnificent castle, even a donkey that shits out gold (no, really!). But when his wife lies on her deathbed, he avows by her wishes to remarry to a woman who’s comparably beautiful. Disturbingly, after being disgusted by several homely but still queenly options, the King sets his sights on his own beautiful daughter, the Princess (also played by Deneuve). With the help of a mysterious fairy (Delphine Seyrig)—with whom the King has beef for an affair that didn’t pan out years earlier—the Princess tries to impede her father’s plans to marry her by placing impossible conditions in front of him in hopes that he’ll give up: for instance, he must have a wedding gown made from the colors of the weather, the moon and the sun. Each time, these fantastical provisos stump her father’s tailors, but only briefly. When the Princess has run out of delaying tactics, the fairy convinces the young girl to wear the Donkey Skin carcass—one of her earlier requests for a strange dress—and run away, essentially posing as a disgusting and disfigured young girl that no one could possibly want. Of course, a young prince eventually discovers the undisguised princess, becomes smitten, and through an elaborate glass slipper-esque technique, searches the kingdom high and low to find her. If one can get past the pungent and unsettling narrative elements—which to his credit Demy doesn’t try and soften— “Donkey Skin” is a whimsical and eccentrically tactile confection of color and of the most oddest rags to riches fables in cinema ever. By today’s standards there’s a lot of “WTF?”-ness going in “Donkey Skin,” but its ridiculous nature also makes for an amusingly captivating little bauble in the Demy oeuvre.
“Une Chambre en Ville” (1982)
‘Une Chambre’ stands out in this box set mostly because the Criterion Collection compilers skipped over three feature films and a made-for-tv movie and headed right for this late period work. Like ‘Cherbourg,’ every line of dialogue is sung, and yet this film feels rote. The complexity and verve that shone in so many of his previous works is absent. Demy never avoided melodrama, but it’s all a bit too dull and redolent of soap opera. There’s a subplot involving a workers’ strike that opens and closes the film, a tacked-on, Dickens-lite afterthought. Perhaps Demy was getting a little bored with this approach? “Une Chambre” is awfully workmanlike, which is unfortunate given his previous films (which are anything but). Even the music is lacking, as nearly every song repeats the same rhythm and melody over and over, sounding very much like “My Favorite Things” on valium. Demy worked with composer Michel Colombier (who went on to score some of “Purple Rain”) instead of his usual collaborator Michel Legrand, and the contrast does not favor Colombier. Though the film was nominated for nine César Awards, many of them in major categories, in hindsight this was equivalent to the Academy Awards bestowing a lifetime achievement to a once-great artist.
— With contributions from Rodrigo Perez