Jacques Demy appeared on the French cinema scene at the time of the New Wave, though he’s not always thought of as a New Wave director. He wasn’t one of the Cahiers du cinéma group, so was generally included as one of the Left Bank filmmakers, alongside his wife Agnès Varda and other notable directors. Another reason he’s a bit of an anomaly among the New Wave era directors is that his films seemed more clearly indebted to the traditional form. Whereas Godard and Truffaut’s early work is famous for using lightweight cameras to capture raw ‘realism’, Demy became famous for his lavish musicals with carefully designed sets and costumes. However, his work is still far from traditional. He made some radical films in his own way.
One unusual twist he put on many of his films was in having characters and locations exist within and between each other. Long before Marvel crafted their epic cinematic universe, Demy was quietly weaving his own characters in and out of his films. It’s said that he originally wanted to make 50 films, all with intertwining characters. He never took it that far and died in 1990 from AIDS before he managed to make that many films anyway. He did, however, leave a fantastic legacy of titles to enjoy and the Criterion Collection have assembled six of them to form the excellent ‘The Essential Jacques Demy’ Blu-ray set, which will soon be reaching British shores.
I’d only actually seen one of Demy’s films prior to receiving this set to review, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (a.k.a. The Young Girls of Rochefort), but I absolutely adored it, so I was thrilled to get the chance to be able to dig deeper into the director’s filmography in one fell swoop.
The films included in the set are Lola, La Baie Des Anges (a.k.a. Bay of Angels), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a.k.a. Les parapluies de Cherbourg), Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (a.k.a. The Young Girls of Rochefort), Donkey Skin and Une Chambre En Ville. Brief reviews of all titles follow:
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Starring: Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, Alan Scott
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 89 min
Demy’s feature debut was Lola. It features Anouk Aimée as the titular character, a cabaret dancer who’s a single mother and, though seemingly very happy, longs for the return of her son’s father, Michel. We also follow Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a dreamer who’s fed up of his dull life in Nantes (where Demy himself grew up and where he set a number of his films). Roland and Lola knew each other as teenagers but hadn’t crossed paths for a number of years. When they do, Roland falls for her, but Lola still insists on waiting for Michel. We also follow the stories of sailor Frankie (Alan Scott), who loves Lola, and the precocious teenager Cécile (Annie Dupéroux), who reminds Roland of Lola.
When Demy first pitched the idea for Lola, he planned to make a lavish musical in vivid colour but was advised to ditch the music and shoot in black and white. The young director obliged (though later he would realise his dream – see further down) and ended up making a film much more closely linked to the work of the more famous titles of the French New Wave. By this I mean it’s a loosely plotted story, shot in real locations in black and white with a sense of naturalism to it.
That said, there are still some classical filmmaking nods here, such as Demy’s use of dolly shots and the film’s exuberant, extravagantly-scored finale (though there’s a sadness to one of the main characters’ denouement). He also openly devotes the film to one of his idols, Max Ophüls, in the opening titles.
What impressed me most about this wonderful film though, was its humanity. It’s brimming with life, as its host of characters interact and chat, waxing lyrical about life without sounding pretentious or tedious. Aiding the film’s energy is a lively score from Michel Legrand (and a bit of Beethoven). The music was originally going to be composed by Quincy Jones but complications prevented this, leading Demy to choose Legrand, beginning a long and fruitful collaboration. One can only wonder where Demy’s work would lead if Jones was available.
Overall then, Lola is a wonderfully romantic and vibrant ‘hanging out’ movie. Overflowing with life and charm, it’s a joy to watch and a fantastic debut from Demy.
La baie des anges (a.k.a. Bay of Angels)
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Claude Mann, Paul Guers
Country: France, Monaco
Running Time: 84 min
Demy’s follow up feature to Lola (after directing a short segment of the Seven Deadly Sins anthology, which is included in the set) was La baie des anges (a.k.a. Bay of Angels). It sees Claude Mann play Jean, a young man who’s been walking the straight and narrow path for too long so is growing restless. A colleague, Caron (Paul Guers), introduces him to gambling. He wins a decent wad at this first trip to a casino, so he ignores his father’s wishes and uses the money to head on a holiday to Nice to hit the more glamorous spots. There he meets Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), a slightly older woman, divorced and estranged from her child, who is addicted to gambling. Her passion for the game is infectious and Jean is swept up with this lifestyle, becoming addicted himself, to both gambling and Jackie, whom he falls in love with.
Like Lola, this is another New Wave-like black and white, relatively stripped back drama. This time the focus is tighter, with only the two characters driving the story. Once again, the plot is fairly light, but there’s more of a clear arc here.
As a gambling movie, it’s very good. Demy captures both the captivating, addictive lure of the practise as well as its perils, yet it never overplays either hand, neither preaching or glamorising. Instead, it works as a study in obsession.
Stylistically, there are some gorgeous long shots and wonderfully constructed casino scenes that linger on the hypnotic spin of the roulette wheel (Jackie and Jean’s game of choice). Legrand emphasises this with a wonderfully swirling score.
It’s another intoxicating drama then, that’s rich in character. It’s a little more sombre than some of the other titles here, but is none-the-worse for it and still has a vibrancy that keeps the film buoyant. Another winner from Demy.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a.k.a. Les parapluies de Cherbourg)
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey
Country: France, West Germany
Running Time: 92 min
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a.k.a. Les parapluies de Cherbourg) is a musical melodrama that begins by introducing us to the madly-in-love young couple of Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). They want to get married but Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) doesn’t approve. Putting a further spanner in the works is the fact that Guy has been drafted into army service so will be away in Algeria for 2 years.
During this time, Geneviève learns she is pregnant and, not helped by Guy’s lacklustre contact whilst away, worries about what to do and whether her love has forgotten about her. Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, playing the same character he did in Lola) is smitten by Geneviève and offers his hand in marriage, which Geneviève’s mother is thrilled about, due to him being a more wealthy and dependable man. This means Geneviève must decide whether to give up on Guy and pursue a stable life with her child or depend on her hope that is fading.
This is where Demy found his style, or at least the style he would come back to more often throughout his career. Finally finding a producer (Mag Bodard) that was bold enough to back his grand ambitions of making a full-on musical, Demy truly went ‘full-on’, creating a film where every line is sung, even throwaway, conversational dialogue. Demy worked with Legrand once again, to help him compose the epic soundtrack before production, then had the actors lip-sync to the recordings on set (none of their own voices are heard on screen). It plays out like a jazz-inflected opera and works a charm.
The music is truly wonderful too. Being a completely sung piece, it’s hard to single out ‘songs’ as such, but there are many gorgeous passages. Legrand’s orchestration is lush and romantic, with a jazzy edge to keep it fairly lively and work with the rhythm of the semi-spoken dialogue.
It’s not a typical musical in a number of ways though. On top of it being completely sung, which was a first at the time, it’s all shot on real (albeit highly decorated) locations and there is no dancing. The movement of actors and extras is carefully plotted and there’s a grace to it, similar to dancing, but there are no elaborate moves being thrown and only one or two fantastical sequences.
The look of the film is very fantastical though. Finally given a chance to work in Technicolor, Demy and his long-term production designer Bernard Evein (along with his life partner, costume designer Jacqueline Moreau) construct a vividly colourful world where costumes match the wallpaper and there are striking pinks, reds, greens etc. everywhere. It’s truly a sight to behold, making it one of the most beautiful musicals of all time. It threatens to get too gaudy at times but manages to come out unscathed. You can see why it was a huge influence on La La Land for this, and many other reasons.
I must admit though, as strikingly well-produced and bold the film is, I did feel very slightly disappointed with it as a whole. After previously watching and loving Les demoiselles de Rochefort and knowing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was similar and Demy’s most famous film, I was incredibly excited about watching it. So I imagine my expectations were just a little too high. My issue was that the melodramatic story didn’t interest me that much so I the tragic turns the film takes didn’t have the emotional impact they should have.
Nonetheless, it’s still a stylistic triumph – an astonishingly beautiful film that turns a simple kitchen-sink drama into a lush, romantic, yet melancholic musical. It didn’t hit me in the same way as Les demoiselles (see my review linked below) but that might largely be because I saw that first. Of course, this was made first though, so credit must be given where it’s due for how groundbreaking and daring Umbrellas was.
Les demoiselles de Rochefort (a.k.a. The Young Girls of Rochefort)
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, George Chakiris, Françoise Dorléac, Jacques Perrin, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Riberolles, Gene Kelly
Running Time: 125 min
Read my review here – https://blueprintreview.co.uk/2019/11/les-demoiselles-de-rochefort-bfi/
Donkey Skin (a.k.a. Peau d’âne)
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Based on a Fairytale by: Charles Perrault
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Jacques Perrin
Running Time: 91 min
Donkey Skin (a.k.a. Peau d’âne) is based on a classic fairy tale by Charles Perrault. It opens in an idyllic fantasy land where a king (Jean Marais) lives with his beautiful wife and daughter (both played by Catherine Deneuve), and they prosper due to a magical donkey who defecates gold and jewels. However, the Queen falls ill and her dying wish is that, if the King is to remarry, he must only do so to a woman more beautiful than she. The King believes this will be impossible, but his advisors tell him he should try so that he can produce an heir. He looks through a pile of pictures of potential candidates but realises the only princess in the land more beautiful than his wife is his daughter. Despite the issues with this pairing, he asks for her hand in marriage.
His daughter, the Princess, loves her father, but is reluctant to accept his hand and goes to her fairy Godmother (Delphine Seyrig) for advice. She says that marrying her father is wrong and the Princess should make unrealistic demands before she agrees to marriage, to put him off. She asks for various dresses, one the colour of the weather, another of the moon and the final of the sun, but every time her father manages to meet her requests. The fairy Godmother then suggests the Princess asks the King for the skin of his money-producing donkey. Surprisingly the King agrees, so the Princess decides to go into hiding, using the donkey skin as a disguise.
Working as a scullery maid, she spends her days in solitude and hard-graft, amidst abuse from those around her who think she’s disgusting. Hope comes, however, when a handsome Prince (Jacques Perrin) happens to spot the Princess out of her disguise. Besotted by her, the Prince tries to track her down, sending out a kingdom-wide search for the woman whose finger fits the ring he found in a cake made by the woman he believes is the maid dubbed Donkey Skin.
The film was Demy’s most successful in France, becoming a family favourite. It’s certainly charming and takes an innocent, childlike approach to a story that has a twisted, incestuous theme. I must admit, it didn’t have the emotional resonance as some of the other films in the set for me, so although I enjoyed the film, I didn’t fall head over heels for it.
One aspect that took me a while to warm to was the production and costume design. Demy and his usual team went even bigger than usual, with some heightened fantasy renderings of the sort of fairytale imagery we’re used to. Some of this is wonderfully unusual, such as the giant stuffed cat the King uses as a throne, but, for the most part, I found the style quite tacky and dated, particularly in comparison to the wonderful work in Umbrellas and Rochefort. I got used to the look after a while though and warmed to the film.
There are some post-modern touches that bring elements from the ‘future’, such as modern poetry and later a helicopter, into this old-fashioned fantasy world, as well as a couple of fun quirky touches. I found the old crone that spat frogs particularly amusing. The brutal ways in which the realm’s women try to shrink their fingers to fit the Prince’s ring is hilarious too.
Overall then, it’s rather campy by today’s tastes but has a charm and quirkiness to it that make it a pleasure to watch.
Une chambre en ville
Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Starring: Dominique Sanda, Danielle Darrieux, Richard Berry, Michel Piccoli
Running Time: 90 min
Une chambre en ville sees Demy return to the fully-sung operatic musical, but this time set against a worker’s strike in Nantes in 1955. Shipyard worker François Guilbaud (Richard Berry) is one of the strikers and lives in the rented room of an apartment owned by the widowed Margot (Danielle Darrieux). She disapproves of his beliefs and argues with him, as well as with her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda), who is trapped in a marriage with the obsessive and impotent Edmond (Michel Piccoli). Edith later goes to a tarot card reader who tells her she is destined to fall in love with a metal worker but must beware the consequences.
Edith finds Guilbaud one night while hitting the streets dressed only in a fur coat. She entices him up to a hotel room and they share a passionate night together. The pair fall in love, but there are a number of escalating factors getting in their way – Guilbaud’s innocent girlfriend falls pregnant, the strike grows ever more violent, Margot continues to disapprove and Edmond’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing and violent. Despite these hurdles, Edith and Guilbaud are determined to make their love work.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was surprisingly downbeat as it went on, but Une chambre en ville is a full-on tragedy. It has a particularly bleak ending that was unfortunately spoilt for me by one of the special features (I’d advise everyone to wait to watch all titles before hitting any of the extras). However, like with Umbrellas, it didn’t elicit the sort of emotional reaction it probably should have (I’m terrible for crying during films these days, but my eyes remained dry).
Largely, I didn’t find myself engaged by the story. It all seemed a bit melodramatic and conventional. The setting of the strike gave it a unique slant, but in my mind the film didn’t make enough of it. It felt merely like wallpaper for a bog-standard relationship drama, which wasn’t of interest to me (unless I was missing some metaphors). Perhaps more importantly though, I didn’t find the main characters very likeable. Guilbaud is often reasonable but has an unpleasant streak, particularly when talking to Margot. Edith, I found pretty despicable throughout, so I didn’t really care what happened to her.
The style is stunning again though, with another colour-coordinated feast of carefully designed sets and costumes. The stand-offs between the police and strikers are particularly well directed too, masterfully delivering tension and violence despite the musical delivery of the dialogue.
Speaking of musical delivery, surprisingly it’s not Legrand behind the score here, but Michel Colombier. There was no mention of why this was in any of the features (or perhaps I missed it – I did skip one section of a documentary mentioning the film for fear of spoilers) so I’m not sure why Demy chose a different collaborator, but the film does suffer slightly for it. Colombier’s music is very good, but not quite in the same league as Legrand’s work elsewhere in this set. Colombier’s cues don’t seem as timeless for one, with some production techniques dating the sound in places. It all sounds a little more conventional too, favouring deeply romantic but melancholic piano-led tunes. That said, the music does come into its own in the dramatic final act, where the music and drama truly soar.
So, though once again beautifully made and ambitious, Une chambre en ville doesn’t quite step out of the shadow of the similar Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Personally, I struggled to connect with the characters and melodramatic storyline, but it did have some powerful moments, particularly in its finale. So, it’s the weakest in the set, but still well worth your time.
The Essential Jacques Demy Blu-ray set is out on 17th February in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The films largely look and sound fantastic with striking colours and pristine transfers, though Lola looks quite soft and lacks detail in the darker areas. This was because the original negative was sadly destroyed in a fire, so it had to be painstakingly restored from an internegative and other sources. An included featurette shows how it was done.
There are plenty of special features included too:
– New 2K digital restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays of Lola and Bay of Angels and 5.1 or 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin, and Une chambre en ville
– Two documentaries by filmmaker Agnès Varda: The World of Jacques Demy (1995) and The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993)
– Four short films by director Jacques Demy: Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)
– Jacques Demy, A to Z, a new visual essay by critic James Quandt
– Archival interviews with Demy, composer Michel Legrand, and actors Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, and Jacques Perrin
– Once Upon a Time . . . “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary
– Episode from Behind the Screen, a 1966 series about the making of Young Girls
– “Donkey Skin” Illustrated, a 2008 program on the many versions of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale
– “Donkey Skin” and the Thinkers, a 2008 program featuring critic Camille Tabouley
– New conversation between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau
– New interviews with journalist Marie Colmant and film scholar Rodney Hill
– Archival audio Q&A with Demy
– Archival audio interviews with Legrand and Deneuve
– Interview with actor Anouk Aimée from 2012, conducted by Varda
– Interview with Varda from 2012 on the origin of Lola’s song
– Restoration demonstrations for Lola, Bay of Angels, Umbrellas, and Une chambre
– PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critics Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne E. Duggan, and Geoff Andrew, and a postscript by Berthomé
The lack of commentaries is a surprise and a slight disappointment, but there is so much material here the set isn’t much worse off for it. Some of the features also appeared on the BFI version of Les demoiselles de Rochefort, so check my review of that for thoughts on The Young Girls Turn 25 and the Legrand NFT interview. There are a few things missing that were on that disc, so fans of the film might want to double dip.
Varda’s wonderful The World of Jacques Demy doc is perhaps the star of the set. It provides a rich and enjoyable whistle-stop tour of Demy’s work. It’s edited in an unusual order to allow for clever segue-ways into each of Demy’s films rather than a chronological run through. The documentary includes plenty of interviews, film clips and behind the scenes and personal footage, including some of Harrison Ford doing tests with Demy. He was the director’s choice for Model Shop but the studio wouldn’t allow it as he wasn’t famous at the time.
The ‘Jacques Demy, A to Z’ feature is excellent too, providing an in-depth deconstruction of Demy’s work. ‘Once Upon a Time . . . “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”’ is also highly recommended, being very thorough and fascinating, with details on what was happening in France at the time as well as production stories.
There are a few nice period pieces included too, such as some great extended footage of Demy and Legrand working together on the Demoiselles disc. There’s a lot of behind the scenes shots on the 35min period doc, ‘Behind the Screen’ on Rochefort too. It’s strange to see the locations in black and white though.
You get treated to many of the original Rochefort set designs in the interview with costume designer Jacqueline Moreau and most of the other interviews in the set are of value. I did find the Jeanne Moreau interview a little pretentious though. There are lots of personal psychological questions that do little to enhance your thoughts on the film, but there are interesting moments.
The Donkey Skin pieces do a good job of filling you in on the history of the original fairytale, as well as touch on the usual themes of the film.
There are a series of restoration featurettes on the discs too, which do a great job of showing you the lengths gone to make the films look as good as they do. Involved in the process was Varda and a couple of Demy’s children, so there’s a warm passion for the project on display.
Finally, there are a handful of Demy’s early shorts. I loved La luxure, which was originally part of an anthology film, The Seven Deadly Sins. It’s very funny, full of life and contains some imaginative visions of hell. Le sabotier du Val de Loire, which is a lyrical documentary, is a little over-baked perhaps, but beautifully made and poetically constructed. Ars is elegantly made too. I found Les horizons morts, Demy’s professional debut, quite dull and student-like though.
Overall then, it’s a fantastic package that, even in this early stage of the year, stands a good chance of being one of the best Blu-ray sets of 2020.