The Essential Jacques Demy: “a constant conveyor belt of delights”

In the wake of the Oscars’ unprecedented decision to award Best Picture to the best film in competition, let’s revisit the film which turned a previous generation on to subtitled cinema: Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It can’t be overstated what a hit it was on release, winning the hearts of everyone from the Cannes jury to Kurt Vonnegut. And it wasn’t a fad: its style has proved a lasting influence on Damien Chazelle (in La La Land) and Spike Jonze (in his video for Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’). Its theme song ‘I Will Wait for You’ has been covered by Tony Bennett and Scott Walker, as well as being played over the infamously tear-jerking end of the Futurama episode ‘Jurassic Bark’.

Placed at the centre of Criterion UK’s new Blu-Ray box set of Demy’s work, it’s easy to see why it caused such a sensation. There are plenty of musicals and plenty of films about music, but Cherbourg is a rare one that is like music; a whole film that feels like a grand ballad, played out at an unwavering level of emotional intensity. Its central device – that all of its dialogue is sung, in the manner of an opera – was born of Demy’s frustration with conventional musicals, and the way they would stop and start for each number.

Today, this is no longer groundbreaking. There’s even a term for it – the ‘sung-through’ musical. But Criterion’s generous extras, including an hour-long episode of the French TV series Once Upon a Time… devoted to the film, remind you how wildly experimental Demy’s process was. Having written a conventional drama script, he gave it to his regular composer Michel Legrand and asked him to set every line of it to music. It could have been a disaster, but Demy and Legrand were both aware of the risks they were taking. Watched now, it’s canny how Demy places the most potentially ridiculous scene – a customer and a garage mechanic singing to each other about car repair – right at the start. The viewer gets the laugh out of the way, we are reassured that the film-makers understand how absurd this is, and from there on we are under the film’s spell.

Demy and Legrand wanted to rip up the musical rule-book, but the genre and its fans embraced their innovations. By the 1960s, the once-blockbusting Hollywood musical was on its last legs. Films like Camelot, Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Dolittle were costing more and more money, and for what? Empty spectacle with stars who couldn’t even sing. It’s no wonder that this upstart Frenchman was unhesitatingly accepted as the inheritor of a grand Hollywood tradition, securing a cameo from Gene Kelly, no less, for his follow-up film The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Having reinvented the musical, Demy and Legrand seem to have approached Rochefort wanting to prove they really could make a traditional example of the form with everything you expect. If that sounds like a step back, it really isn’t. From the opening dance number, captured in thrillingly long, mobile takes by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, to Kelly’s third-act dance number, it is an absolutely rapturous experience. The plot is a filigree of tangled relationships in the titular seaside town, centring around two twins played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac. What matters, as ever with musicals, is not the plot but the delivery, a constant conveyor belt of delights that somehow marries its pink-hued fantasy to a convincingly earthy depiction of a working-class community.

That note of social realism is picked up in the last film in the set, chronologically speaking. Une chambre en ville marries Cherbourg‘s sung-through approach with a story about striking dockers and women forced into prostitution. The result is something like a modern-dress version of Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables, although Michel Colombier’s sonorous, one-paced score can’t match up to Legrand’s earlier work for Demy, and the whole thing palls well before its tragic finale. It couldn’t be further from Donkey Skin, included here to represent Demy’s more fantasy-based 1970s work. An adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairy tale that Disney didn’t even try to sanitise, it features Jean Cocteau’s regular lead Jean Marais as a king with incestuous designs on his daughter – Deneuve again – and Delphine Seyrig as the feminist fairy godmother who gives Deneuve the tricks to escape. Its bold production design, enchantingly simple special effects and provocative anachronisms make it a suitable tribute to Cocteau, as well as a rewarding, eccentric film in its own right.

The question you may have at this point is: how did someone with his head this far in the clouds emerge from the French New Wave, a movement so wedded to street-level reality they usually scorned period films? The earliest two films in the set offer some clues. Demy’s debut Lola is the closest to conventional nouvelle vague, if such a thing exists. It follows Roland, a drifter played by Marc Michel, who drives aimlessly around Demy’s home town of Nantes until he meets the title character, a showgirl played by Anouk Aimée, who he has history with.

When the film focuses on Roland, it feels like the work of a man struggling to escape the influence of his peers, complete with big, take-me-seriously chunks of Beethoven’s 7th stopping and starting clumsily on the soundtrack in a way perhaps only Godard can get away with. When Lola focuses on Lola, on the other hand, you see the path ahead with dazzling clarity. Aimée is playing a recognisable French cinema type here, a flighty, life-loving dancer with a cinephile edge (her Marilyn Monroe fandom becomes an identity in the same way Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Bogart fixation is in A bout de souffle). But her joy in musical performance shows you where Demy’s interests already lay. Tellingly, when he revisited the character of Roland – still played by Michel – he was subsumed into the entirely musical universe of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

In an interview on the extras Aimée says she was flattered to be considered for the role of Lola, as people had not previously considered her beautiful. This stretches credibility but it does set up a useful parallel with the other pre-Cherbourg film in the set, Bay of Angels. If the role of Lola took Aimée from character actress to sex symbol, Bay of Angels sees Demy collaborate with an actress making the opposite journey – Jeanne Moreau. Moreau had been much in demand for unchallenging eye-candy roles until Louis Malle unleashed her talent in Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers. This set her on the trajectory which resulted in Orson Welles describing her as the greatest actress in the world, and anybody wondering why could do much worse than watching Bay of Angels.

Moreau’s performance as the fragile gambling addict Jackie is an incredible showcase for her ability to portray complexity and fragility. Cherbourg attains its emotional impact through well-wrought artifice, but this reveals something painful, raw and real at the heart of his work. The subject of gambling, too, is a terrific match for Demy’s romantic fatalism. He understands perfectly the breezy pleasures of a game of luck, as well as the loss and sadness it leaves in its wake. Best of all, the opening blast of Beethoven from Lola is replaced with a poppy, peppy theme tune from Legrand. It might not be the best film in this set – my vote goes to The Young Girls of Rochefort for that honour – but it offers the most unexpected insight into its director’s personality, showing the romance and melancholy of his musicals coming through perfectly clearly in a very different genre.

Extras are too voluminous to fully summarise here, but rest assured every film has a thorough set of supplementary interviews and retrospectives, as well as a lot more besides. Particular stand-outs include interviews with psychiatrists trying to unpick the Freudian tapestry of Donkey Skin, a series of early shorts – Les horizons morts, Le sabotier du Val de Loire, Ars, and La luxure – on the disc for Lola, and Demy’s wife Agnès Varda’s hour-long retrospective documentary The Young Girls Turn 25 is included as an extra for The Young Girls of Rochefort.

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Graham Williamson

Writer, podcaster and short film-maker, Graham fell in love with cinema when he saw Kyle MacLachlan find an ear in the long grass in Blue Velvet. He hasn't looked back since (Graham, not Kyle). His writing has been published in Northern Correspondent and he appears on The Geek Show's Cinema Eclectica and Literary Loitering podcasts. He was once described as "the only person who could get a Godard reference into a review of the bloody Blue Lagoon".

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