PRINT April 2013


the films of Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort), 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Production still. From left: Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Demy, and Françoise Dorléac. Photo: Hélène Jeanbrau.

“I’M TRYING TO CREATE A WORLD IN MY FILMS,” Jacques Demy once said. This demiurge (Demy-urge?) transformed humdrum provincial port towns into florid, fantastic realms. Several of his works were inspired by myths or fairy tales; even those that weren’t seem out of time. Informed as much by Balzac and Cocteau as by MGM musicals, Demy’s hybrid microcosms established him as one of cinema’s preeminent dreamers and romantics. Yet a perverse streak runs through his oneiric sensibility: The most ebullient of Demy’s twelve feature films, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967), contains a subplot involving an old chorine hacked to pieces by a spurned lover. Two of his movies, Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin, 1970) and Trois places pour le 26 (Three Seats for the 26th, 1988), his last film, blithely address father-daughter incest.

A fellow traveler in the Nouvelle Vague but never officially a member of that movement, Demy, who died in 1990 at the age of fifty-nine, is best known for his third feature, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), the all-sung melancholy chamber opera that launched Catherine Deneuve’s career. No Demy movie ever matched the international critical and commercial success of Umbrellas, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film; in fact, the gender-bending French Revolution–set Lady Oscar (1979), made during the last decade of the director’s career, wasn’t even released in his own country until 1997. The Demy retrospective that kicks off this month at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which will screen all of his features (and his sole made-for-TV movie, La Naissance du jour [Break of Day, 1980], an adaptation of the 1928 Colette novel) plus several shorts, provides the rare opportunity for his neglected works to share equal billing—and be seen in context—with his celebrated ones. The sense of discovery will be even greater when the series travels to New York’s Film Forum later this year: Demy’s last four movies were never released in the US at all.

Born in 1931 in Pontchâteau, France, Demy grew up in Nantes, the western port town that would serve as the setting for his first film, Lola (1961), and his antepenultimate, Une Chambre en ville (A Room in Town, 1982). He began his formal training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nantes before enrolling at the École Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie in Paris. Demy’s first employer after graduating from ETPC in 1951 was Paul Grimault, a renowned French animator with whom he would later collaborate on La Table tournante (The Turning Table, 1988, also included in the Cinémathèque lineup). Work as an assistant to documentarian Georges Rouquier soon followed; the elder filmmaker produced and narrated Demy’s first short, Le Sabotier du Val de Loire (The Loire Valley Clog Maker, 1955), a nonfiction portrait of a senescent artisan and his wife.

Demy’s signature style blazingly emerged in his next short, Le Bel indifférent (The Indifferent Lover, 1957), an adaptation of Cocteau’s one-act theater piece, in which a nightclub singer castigates both her philandering boyfriend, who remains mute throughout her tirade, and herself for putting up with him. The Indifferent Lover marked Demy’s first collaboration with two crew members—production designer Bernard Evein and costumier Jacqueline Moreau—who would be indispensable in carrying out many of his Kool-Aid-colored mise-en-scènes, here evident in cherry-red walls and the spurned chanteuse’s emerald-green peignoir.

An even more crucial partnership began with Lola, Demy’s inaugural association with composer Michel Legrand; they would go on to make eight more movies together. The lustrous black-and-white film also serves as the initial “volume” in a Comédie humaine–like port-city pentad in which characters reappear or are referenced. Anouk Aimée plays the cabaret performer of the title, a favorite among sailors (recurrent supporting players and extras in Demy’s oeuvre) who still aches for the man who left her seven years earlier. Her chance meeting with Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a childhood friend, exemplifies Lola’s latticework of coincidences. The aleatory becomes central in La Baie des anges (Bay of Angels, 1963), starring a bottle-blond Jeanne Moreau as a compulsive gambler who takes a neophyte roulette player as her lover; their folie à deux deepens with each visit to a casino along the Côte d’Azur.

The fair-haired actress most indelibly associated with Demy is Deneuve, who was only twenty when The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, her first of four films with the director, was released. This sui generis production, which spans November 1957 to December 1963, not only celebrates the soaring passion between Deneuve’s Geneviève and Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy but exalts in the everyday; Demy’s libretto highlights the simple pleasures of planning one’s postworkday activities. Yet joy is quickly overshadowed by war: When Guy is called to fight in Algeria, only the film’s palette of sherbet-colored pastels remains undimmed.

The quotidian becomes all the more spectacular in The Young Girls of Rochefort; simply moving from point A to point B necessitates a fully choreographed sequence complete with cartwheeling passersby and front-flipping mariners. Deeply in thrall to Hollywood musicals—an homage further underscored by the casting of Gene Kelly and West Side Story’s George Chakiris—Young Girls centers on twin sisters, played by Deneuve and her real-life older sibling Françoise Dorléac, who dream of artistic glory in Paris. The random encounters and missed connections that drive the plot of Young Girls are even more intricately overlaid than those in Lola, and the movie’s color scheme more effulgent than that of Umbrellas. The sheer exuberance of Young Girls is unparalleled in Demy’s filmography, even if one character—the aforementioned murderous severer—does grimly note, “There’s trouble everywhere, like in ’39.”

The specter of more immediate danger—the Vietnam War—looms in the Los Angeles–set Model Shop (1969), Demy’s first and only film made in the US, which traces twenty-four hours in the life of an unemployed architect named George (Gary Lockwood), who has been called up for the draft. During the course of this desultory day, he follows a soigné figure in a white dress—who is none other than Aimée’s Lola, now working at the seedy backroom business of the title, where men pay to photograph women in various intimate settings and poses. Tender and somber, this oblique sequel to Demy’s debut feature is greatly shaped by the director’s infatuation with Los Angeles, reflected in George’s pronouncement after he takes in the view from the Hollywood Hills: “It’s a fabulous city. It’s pure poetry.”

Unfortunately, few appreciated the film’s subdued plangency, and for his next two projects, the director retreated deep into the past. Donkey Skin, a musical based on Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century fairy tale, reunited Demy with Legrand and Deneuve, here starring as a demure princess baffled by her recently widowed father’s marriage proposal. (The king is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover and frequent leading man.) Donkey Skin’s fantastic color and costumes and its chimerical elements, such as talking flora, contrast sharply with Demy’s muddy-brown film about the Black Death, The Pied Piper (1972), his second project in English—and, thankfully, the only one to star psychedelic folkie Donovan. (Lady Oscar, based on Riyoko Ikeda’s manga The Rose of Versailles, was Demy’s third, and final, English-language film.)

Of Demy’s last five movies, only one—A Room in Town—approaches the caliber of his peerless first five. Reprising Umbrellas’ all-sung format, though wildly departing from that film’s gentle tone, A Room in Town is set during the 1955 shipyard strikes in Nantes. Blood fills the movie, whether in the clashes depicted between dockworkers and the police or in the scene in which a jealous husband cuts his own throat with a straight razor—violent destruction that will also reverberate in the film’s central love story.

But even Demy’s patchiest works are never less than audacious; viewed today, some of these honorable failures may even illuminate the deeply private preoccupations of their creator. Parking (1985), for example, Demy’s often-clumsy reconfiguring of the Orpheus myth, which imagines the lyre player as a Mitterrand-era pop idol, stands out for its explicit acknowledgment of same-sex desire: The married Orpheus (Francis Huster) and his sound engineer, Calaïs (Laurent Malet), confess their love to each other; earlier, at a concert after-party, the two men passionately kiss.

Five years after Parking, Demy would die of complications from AIDS, a fact not officially acknowledged until nearly two decades later, with the release of Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), a memoir-documentary by Agnès Varda, Demy’s widow and the estimable filmmaker often hailed as the “godmother” of the Nouvelle Vague. (Prior to Beaches, Demy was said to have died from a brain hemorrhage caused by leukemia.) Varda, who married Demy in 1962—they had a son, Mathieu, in 1972; Demy legally adopted Varda’s daughter from a previous relationship, Rosalie—would make three films about her husband and his work in the years immediately following his death. This triptych—Jacquot de Nantes (1991), Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (The Young Girls Turn 25, 1993), and L’Univers de Jacques Demy (1995)—is but one example of Varda’s tireless promotion of Demy’s legacy. She has also spearheaded the restoration of several of his films, and in 2008, her company, Ciné-Tamaris, in conjunction with Arte Video, released the comprehensive DVD box set Intégrale Jacques Demy.

Yet for all this laudable, unflagging attention to a singular filmmaker, much about Demy remains concealed. Varda mentions AIDS in Beaches but says nothing else about her husband’s affective life outside their marriage (though a painful temporary separation from Demy is the basis of her 1981 film à clef Documenteur). The abridgement is, of course, Varda’s prerogative. For Demy fans no less than for those new to his work, however, the omission may be an important key, allowing greater access to Demy’s intensely personal, rapturous, intricate universe.

In conjunction with the exhibition “Le Monde Enchanté de Jacques Demy,” a complete retrospective of the director’s work will be on view at the Cinémathèque Française, Paris, Apr. 10–Aug. 4; travels to TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto, June 27–Sept. 3; Film Forum in New York, fall 2013; and other venues to be announced.

Melissa Anderson is a film critic based in New York.