The Essential Jacques Demy
The Criterion Collection
Broken hearts. Lives spent waiting for lost loves. An ax murderer. A father who desperately wants to marry his daughter. War tearing people apart. Class tearing people apart. Gambling addictions. Unreciprocated affections. Violent protests. Children born without a second parent. And perhaps worst of all: Broken hearts that heal because everyone moved on.
Such tragedies litter the films of Jacques Demy. But anyone who’s watched one of the Frenchman’s films — perhaps his most famous, 1964’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” one of the six features collected in The Criterion Collection’s new Demy box set — knows they’re anything but downers. They’re effervescent eyesores, filled with signing and dancing and bold colors and, often, Catherine Deneuve, the most beautiful woman in the world. They’re proudly, defiantly artificial, especially when contrasted with the rough and gritty works of his colleagues in the French New Wave (to which Demy only debatably belonged). Unlike Jean-Luc Godard, who briefly sang his praises before turning on him, Demy was in a good mood.
Or rather he was and he wasn’t. The constant that runs through Demy’s films is the push-and-pull between happiness and absolute despair. It’s evident from his first feature, 1961’s “Lola,” a black-and-white cinemascope number that pits happy-go-lucky aging dancer Lola (Anouk Aimee) with her moody brooder of an old flame Roland (Marc Michel). “Isn’t life beautiful?” she exhales in her usual breathy sigh. Roland disagrees, but so, perhaps, deep down, does she. Lola is waiting for the man who knocked her up and skipped town — someone who probably sees no reason to return. Roland tries to fill that hole in her heart, but he can’t. She does not love him back, and when Demy improbably gives her a Hollywood ending, she’s brought back down to earth by remembering the despondent guy with whom she could never picture herself.
“The Bay of Angels,” his slightly bigger follow-up, has an improbable happy ending too, albeit one that we have no reason to think may last. That’s because its heroes can never be happy: Jackie (Jeanne Moreau, with hair so blonde it looks white) and Jean (Claude Mann) are gamblers, but they understand that gambling isn’t about winning. It’s about being in the moment. Their lives have ups and downs, of big wins and absolute poverty. But they’re really as circular as a spinning roulette — as well as the theme, by Demy regular Michel Legrand, whose cascading piano simulates a wheel slowing down to decide the players’ ultimate fates.
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is in many ways the ultimate Demy — a pop opera where the non-stop singing begs to be made fun of, and often was. (If you wanted to deride the film, you sang mundanities, like “pass the salt.” After all, the movie does the same.) It’s a candy-colored youth romance, with Deneuve (in her breakthrough) forced by the Algerian War and her mom to cut loose her first love (Nino Castelnuovo). They mean to reunite, but they don’t until the final scene, when enough time has passed that they can barely remember the passion that once consumed them. “People only die of love in the movies,” says Deneuve’s mom. “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” may look and feel and sound like a movie, but it hurts like real life, reminding us of something truly awful: We all, in some way, get over it.
Well, some of Demy’s characters do. Some are haunted forever. Others actually move on, in fact, into other Demy movies, allowing us to trace their fictional lives a la Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films or "Boyhood." In “Cherbourg,” Deneuve winds up forced to marry no less than Roland, Marc Michel’s self-pitying co-lead from “Lola,” who subsequently hit upon wealth but still has to settle for being a fallback man. (He’s the Ralph Bellamy of the Demy-verse: the guy women marry because they can’t be with the one they really want.)
Lola herself returns in “Model Shop” (not included in the set), Demy’s only Hollywood film (from 1969), where she’s now working at a sex shop and dealing with another war-bound stud, played by Gary Lockwood. (The “2001” rent-a-hunk was not Demy’s choice. He wanted a very pre-fame Harrison Ford, but the studio didn’t think he was a star. Ford, who remained friends with Demy and his wife, fellow filmmaker Agnes Varda, pops up on the special features, including Varda’s typically hand-crafted “The World of Jacques Demy.”)
“The Young Girls of Rochefort,” Demy’s splashy “Cherbourg” follow-up (after it won countless awards and box office dough), is filled with people haunted by lost loves, or loves who exist only in their heads. It’s an ensemble film, lacking the tight storyline of “Cherbourg,” but therein lies its charm. In a way, it’s closer to Jacques Tati’s “Playtime”: a city film (in this case a smaller town, which Demy painted in summer colors) that keeps picking up with the same people milling about, interacting (and in this case getting their own songs, once again by Legrand).
Among those is Gene Kelly, but his presence isn’t a mere Hollywood dream; usually Kelly was lit to hide a scar on his cheek, but Demy lets it, and his increasing wrinkles, be clearly visible. But the vibe is almost the opposite of "Cherbourg"'s. It's light with a light undercurrent of melancholy that never overwhelms. And there's more dancing than singing, a sign that Demy was in a rare mostly optimistic mood.
“Rochefort” is once again fantasy battling reality, and so is “Donkey Skin,” despite it being a full-on fairy tale. Demy indulges in charming practical effects, paying homage to Jean Cocteau: People and animals are painted colors, while a band plays wearing artificial pig masks. But even the basic plot throws us off: After the death of his Queen, a King (Cocteau regular and lover Jean Marais) demands to marry his daughter (Deneuve), who first tries to delay the wedding then runs off to the poorer parts of the realm, disguising herself with a clearly fake donkey over her head.
Demy wanted to create an unsanitized fairy tale — based on one by Charles Perrault, the creator of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and many more — but do so with a childlike innocence. It’s not a tale Disney would ever tackle, and that’s what gives this tale of incest its weird yet strangely wholesome edge.
By 1982’s “Une Chambre en Ville,” Demy was really pushing his dialectic between the unreal and the painfully real. Another love story, it involves a woman (Dominique Sanda) on the run from her abusive yet pathetic older husband (Michel Piccoli) and finding solace in a worker (Richard Berry) involved in an ongoing worker’s protest. Like “Cherbourg,” this one’s all sung too (with music by Michel Colombier this time), but the material is darker, and the politics that loomed in the background of “Cherbourg” take higher precedence. (Its portrayal of crooning protestors foresees the student activists in the musical of “Les Miserables.”)
Moreover it’s very R-rated: there’s a bloody throat-slitting while Sanda spends the majority of the film clad only in a fur coat, and sometimes less than that. It’s not all despair, but it’s mostly despair, despite the flowing melodies. If all Demy films are sad but trying not to be, “Une Chambre en Ville” is the one that gives in fully.
Extras: Spread over six Blu-ray discs (and more than double that if you’re watching the DVDs, also included), each title is packed with Criterion-y extras: old TV show clips, appearances at schools, new video essays, etc. Four Demy shorts are included, including his student film, 1951’s “Les Horizons Morts,” which finds Demy in self-pitying “The Sorrows of Young Werther” mode — one he’d not exactly get rid of but put to better use. Varda is everywhere too, with two feature length documentaries that do far more than rattle of facts (and features such mind-blowing sights as Jim Morrison visiting the set of "Donkey Skin").
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