You should know going in that prior to a few days ago I'd never seen a single Jacques Demy film. This means that among the many other things it is, or can be, the new The Essential Jacques Demy set from Criterion is an education. Bringing together six of his films, including his earliest features, as well as his best known work, the set is not unlike Criterion's line of Eclipse sets in that it takes a bunch of films by a single director (or united by a theme, as is sometimes the case with Eclipse) and throws them at you so you can sort it all out. Which is as it should be. And just for the hell of it (actually there's a practical reason, but never mind) I'm going to write these up as I watch them. So let's start.
Lola - This 1961 film, Demy's debut feature, is dedicated to Max Ophuls, and apart from the obvious nod in the title to Lola Montes, the influence can be found in Lola's structure. In the way Demy sets several different stories, and pairings of characters, spinning off of a single theme, he recalls Ophuls's La Ronde and that film's series of love affairs. Lola doesn't have an Anton Walbrook to help link things together, but it does have Michel, the man from whom everything else in the story grows.
Anouk Aimee plays the title character, a dancer in a small seaside French town. Lola is her stage name, her real name is Cecile, and it was as Cecile that she met and fell in love with Michel. When she got pregnant, Michel disappeared -- seven years ago, as Demy's film opens. As Cecile, Lola also knew Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a somewhat melancholy young man who loses his job soon after we meet him, but who thinks happiness is within his grasp when he and Lola, who he has always loved, cross paths again. There are complications, several, one in the form of an American sailor named Frankie (Alan Scott, an American actor who nevertheless seems to have been dubbed by someone else, someone who doesn't sound like they're from the same part of Chicago that Frankie's from). Lola is sleeping with Frankie, at least until he ships off, though neither regards the relationship as terribly serious. In addition there's another Cecile, a young girl (Annie Duperoux) who will meet both Roland and Frankie, and will become smitten by Frankie, who, Lola assures Roland at one point, she slept with only because, nice guy though he is, he reminds her of Michel.
So. Without being soppy about anything, Lola hopes to depict the intensity and lasting power of a person's first love. Michel was Lola/Cecile's, Cecile/Lola was Roland's, and Frankie is Cecile's. This is intended to be seen as a shared experience, and so connected are the characters by the rhyming names, and the rhyming back to Ophuls, and so forth that I wonder if the character was named Michel after Demy cast Marc Michel as Roland. It sounds so complicated as I lay it out, but the film, sad though it sometimes is, is light as a feather, easy and charming, very much the "musical without music" that Demy said was the whole idea. For a film that ends with its protagonist walking off alone, and indeed it's a film where very few of the characters in love find themselves with the ones they love (and even the one that does, you kind of have to question what the future holds), there is a surprising absence of darkness in tone, and not a scrap of bitterness. The key, actually, is Annie Duperoux as the young girl Cecile, whose innocent day at the fair with Frankie (he's not being a creep, I promise) is the film's centerpiece and emotional core. Things don't always work out, and in her case can't possibly, but what a day.
Bay of Angels - Well shit. I hope we haven't hit our peak just two movies in. In 1963, with only his second feature, Jacques Demy made one of the all-time great films about gambling and gamblers, as far as I'm concerned eclipsing even what is widely considered the best film of this type, Robert Altman's California Split (in fairness, one thing Bay of Angels did for me is give me a very strong urge to revisit that later picture).
Bay of Angels stars Claude Mann as Jean Fournier, a bank clerk in Paris whose curiosity over the new car his similarly low-paid colleague Caron (Paul Guers) leads him, at Caron's urging, into the world of gambling and casinos. Jean is bemused by the spikes and drops of Caron's fortunes, as well as by his life of deception (Caron hides as much of this as he can from his wife), but a little good luck and Jean is hooked. As he strikes out on his own, he meets Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), a professional gambler, but not in the sense that she wins a lot, but rather in the sense that this is all she does and thinks about.
Demy follows this couple through dozens of bad times and I think maybe two good ones, and it's absolutely mesmerizing. The relationship between Jean and Jackie does become physical, and while this is not incidental it's not central to what riveted me about Bay of Angels. The film is comprised almost entirely of gambling without being any sort of gambling procedural -- the two of them play roulette, and their brief conversations about which number and color to bet are almost nonsensical because their choices don't have the kind of logic behind them that they, particularly Jackie, think they do. Early on, when a bet goes wrong she mutters "I don't get it." It's almost funny, and occasionally there's no "almost" about it, but the performances by Moreau and Mann are so on-point that it never feels as if Demy is sending them up, but simply depicting them as accurately as he, and the actors, can imagine and execute.
I really can't overstate how superb Moreau and Mann are. Jackie often bets standing at the table, calling out her bet and throwing her chips on the table, then turning her back so she's not facing anyone when she learns that she's lost again. Moreau's face somehow registers the disappointment and frustration without ever quite playing it. Another time, shortly after Jackie and Jean have first met but after they've decided to go it together, they're both changing their cash into chips. She goes first and stands waiting while he does it, and at one point she gives him this look, with a little grin, that reveals how happy she is, even a little relieved, to have a gambling buddy, much as a drunk might be delighted to find someone new to drink with. And again, watching them try to be logical together...she asks Jean what he bet, he says two, and black, and she nods as if to say "That makes sense."
Nothing is ever hammered on by either actor. In fact, Claude Mann's performance made me think about Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Immigrant, which I saw recently. Phoenix is an uncannily good actor, and he's very good in The Immigrant, but it occurred to me at one point that very little of what he was doing could be described as either naturalistic or stylized. This doesn't reflect poorly on Phoenix, as far as I'm concerned (though good as he is I wouldn't consider his performance in The Immigrant to be him at the top of his game), but it does say something about modern film acting. If Mann gave the performance he gives in Bay of Angels today, many would complain that he's "wooden" (those people needing to say something when they can't call an actor "ham-fisted") because he signals nothing, makes a show of nothing. The character, Jean, has a habit of responding with mild sarcasm when someone speaks harshly to him ("That's stupid." "Merci.") and Mann nails this, and lets a few words in Demy's script help define the kind of person Jean is. Reserved, though not exactly shy, curious, aloof, so that when, as Caron (the boatman) suggests will happen when urging Jean to gamble, he learns who he is, it's easier to understand what kind of personality is being chipped away. It's all absolutely outstanding.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Jesus, where to begin? First off, I should say that I am particularly, some might say exquisitely, unqualified to write about musicals. When thinking about how a musical like this one upends the form, I'm afraid I have to retreat to my safety zone, which is to look at it, at least at first, through the lens of Dennis Potter, who obviously got to work after Demy, and was coming at things from the exact opposite direction. Bear with me. In Potter's musical work, like Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective, and Lipstick on Your Collar, the pop songs of the different eras -- the 30s, 40s, and 50s respectively -- were pure fantasy, they were a dream to which his tragic characters retreated; they used the songs to escape, in some cases, horror. With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy is doing almost the exact opposite. He's acknowledging that the subject of musicals was everyday life. In Potter, the songs take the form of fantasy. In traditional musicals, the songs are part of the same reality as everything else, but they tend to just happen, and there is often a clear dividing line between them and the dialogue (this is what the literalists are always complaining about). The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is all singing, however, and the lyrics, at least as translated into English via the subtitles, are "just" dialogue. There is nothing poetic, or even lyrical, about the words (English versions of two songs did become US pop hits). Guys who work at a garage, and they're talking about what they're going to do that night, one bums a cigarette from another, but they sing every word. The words don't change because they're being sung, however.
So that's to begin with. The other question I found myself surprised to be asking was, are there actual songs, or are the characters merely singing everything? At first it didn't appear that there were, but of course I'm a dumbshit. Every scene in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or perhaps more accurately, every new conversation, is a different song. The borders get a little hazy, to be sure, but this is more or less how things work here. The composer and songwriter (who I guess I might as well mention at this point) Michel Legrand does an ingenious thing by almost hiding the melody, so that the characters are very clearly talking even while they're singing, but the emotion of certain moments slows everything down so that the melody, which carries the emotion of a song more immediately and clearly than the lyrics, swells up, and the song takes form.
And this is all in the aid of what? The film is about a young woman named Genevieve Emery (Catherine Deneuve) who works for her mother (Anne Vernon) in an umbrella shop. She's in love with a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), and for reasons that are pretty much trivial and mostly the moral holdovers from a part of society that is fading away, they have to keep their romance hidden, but they're pretty bad at that, so Genevieve's mother and Guy's sickly aunt (Mireille Perrey) know quite well what's up. Madame Emery in particular doesn't approve, and when the umbrella shop begins to struggle she tries to match Genevieve up with another young man, a well-to-do one, who offered to help Madame Emery out by buying her jewels. His name is Roland Cassard, and he's played by Marc Michel. About which more, etc.
The film changes when Guy is drafted into the army, and goes off to fight in the Algerian war. He'll be gone two years, so he and Genevieve decide to consummate their love, and after Guy ships out she discovers she's pregnant. Roland, meanwhile, is still available.
Demy carries over the philosophy that music and songs can shape the day-to-day into the look of the film, which doesn't recall Douglas Sirk, as I might have expected going in, so much as it does Frank Tashlin, which I wouldn't have expected. The film is shockingly colorful (not the above picture gets that across exactly, but it's a good shot), and the characters are dressed to match the interior design of the rooms they inhabit -- the wallpaper, the curtains. It's extremely artificial, by design, and even with a wink (one chorus member in an early song talks, or sings, about hating the opera because of all the singing, and preferring movies for this reason), but with the intention of communicating that for Demy, at least in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, this is naturalism. It's a form of naturalism that only films can provide, and of course the most naturalistic films can only provide an interpretation of reality. Demy, who'd just done that, and brilliantly, with Bay of Angels, is nevertheless not fooled. This is real life if you think about it, he's saying, and you don't even have to think that hard. Plus the singing is great. And this film came out in 1964. It was Demy's third film. No one should be able to display this variety of skills and talents so early in their career.
Oh, and yes, Marc Michel is reprising the character he played in Lola, in a someone different stylistic environment. Considering how Lola had so many references to itself within itself, and now bits are popping up in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which approaches the idea of love and heartbreak in much the same way), it's a shame that this Criterion set couldn't find room for Demy's Model Shop, his 1969 film that finds Anouk Aimee once again playing Lola. Hopefully they'll get to that one soon.
The Young Girls of Rochefort - One thing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg didn't have was dancing. A common, even essential feature of the musical, the aesthetics of that film, which I've argued is the blatantly artificial as reality, would seem to invite the inclusion of dance, but I actually don't think it would have worked out. "Let's not go nuts," was perhaps Demy's thinking on the matter.
If Demy had any desire to find a place for all the dancing he didn't put in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he satisfied it with his next film, 1967's The Young Girls of Rochefort. Intentionally light and frivolous, the film is about various separated pairs of lovers -- so separated that a few of them don't even know their other half exists -- and then spends two hours joining them up. A standard plot for this kind of thing, but Demy assembled a cast to bring the goods, one which includes Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, and Gene Kelly. So yes, judging by those last two names, this is a dance movie, and how.
The problem with charming movies, though, is they'd better charm you or else they have a tendency to grind you down, and I have to admit that by the end of The Young Girls of Rochefort I was starting to feel pretty grinded. Obviously, the film has charm -- I liked the bit where Deneuve is walking down the street and random people begin dancing as they pass her. I think that dancing is a stupid thing that idiots do, and even I'd dance if suddenly faced with Catherine Deneuve. But it's a light film, which means it is, among other things, a comedy, but I found none of it especially funny, and at least one joke, when Francoise Dorleac as Deneuve's sister (and her real sister) name drops composer Michel Legrand in a song, seemed actively beneath everyone involved. There's also a strange element of gallows humor involving a sadistic local murder that several characters follow through rumors, and the newspapers -- I don't know what this is doing in the film, other than to prove that Demy is determined to teach everything lightly. Which, you know, if it was all working for me would be fine. But frivolity that doesn't sweep you up begins to feel like ephemera.
I acknowledge that a "to each his own" kind of thing plays into this more than it usually would, given that the musical style of The Young Girls of Rochefort is of the Burt Bacharach variety, and that's a variety that has always somewhat repelled me. A strong word, maybe, but that Bacharach-scored montage in the Bolivia section of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did its damage a long time ago.
Donkey Skin - It's at this point that the box set leapfrogs -- and I'm sure it had its reasons -- over Model Shop to land on Donkey Skin, Demy's eccentric fairy tale semi-musical from 1970. If I mourn the loss of Model Shop I'm able to do so while celebrating the inclusion of Donkey Skin, which appeals to be primarily because it approximates, more closely than just about any other film of roughly similar ambitions I can think of, the experience of reading a fairy tale. Which isn't to say that this slightly bonkers film is without its cheeky moments, which itself isn't to say that it's insincere.
The film is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a collector and re-teller of ancient folktales much the like the Brothers Grimm. Because of Perrault, we have "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella" and "Bluebeard" and "Little Red Riding Hood," plus bunches more. Perrault has also been the subject of recent film adaptations by Catherine Breillat -- her Bluebeard was brilliant, and her Sleeping Beauty I haven't seen, but I imagine those two films would make a swell triple feature, their various dissimilarities notwithstanding, with Donkey Skin, if for no other reason than that roughly modern, non-animated fairy tale films that haven't degraded the source into run-of-the-mill special effects adventures, basically don't exist. Demy's next film was 1972's The Pied Piper (that's a Grimm one, not Perrault), so throw that one into the mix as well, couldn't hurt.
So anyway, this one is about a donkey that shits jewelry. Sort of, anyway -- there's a king (Jean Marais) who deeply enjoys his prosperous life with his wife and daughter (both Catherine Deneuve), the quality of each of their lives being tied, for the moment, to the fact that the king owns this donkey that shits jewelry. Then one day the queen gets sick, and before she dies she makes the king promise that he will only remarry if he can find a princess who is more beautiful than she is -- a tall order, considering she's Catherine Deneuve. Nevertheless, he agrees, and begins combing the land for such a princess. Unfortunately, the only princess who is more beautiful than the deceased queen is his own daughter, so he proposes to her. Appalled, the princess seeks the council of her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), who devises a series of tricks, demands to be made of the king by the princess, that he should be incapable of fulfilling, but of course he fulfills each of them, including giving his daughter the skin of that donkey ("My banker?").
I'll stop there with the plot, other than to say finally the princess is driven to flee the kingdom entirely, wearing the donkey skin (her nickname among those she meets on her travels becomes "Donkey Skin"), and become a scullery maid. What I think the above helps illustrate, not to mention the fact that the plot isn't even close to being spoiled, is that Demy sticks closely to the spirit of fairy tales. Those things are pure plot, or, if you define that word to mean something more mechanical, they're pure incident -- one damn thing after another, and so on. That for me was the joy of Donkey Skin -- the visuals, too, which are designed to resemble storybook illustrations, but of course that just strengthens the vibe. Little touches (that may come from Perrault for all I know), like the old woman who spits frogs, the royal servants whose skin is painted the color (or simply is the color?) of the royal banners, all help the film achieve a level of fantasy that some people have been known to spend millions of dollars trying to hit. The songs -- one of them is about how children shouldn't marry their parents -- are a bit contemporary (as of 1970 anyway) for my tastes, and there's a pair of jokes, one rather interesting (the fairy godmother mentions a battery and the princess asks her what a battery is) and another less so, try to provide a hook to the modern world, for reasons I can't quite grasp, but I also don't much care. How many films like this exist? Eight? Twelve? Not enough, whatever it is.
Une Chambre en Ville - With the last film in this Essential Jacques Demy set, a fascinating time jump occurs. After the first five films in the set run from 1961 to 1970, Une Chambre en Ville (translated as A Room in Town) is from 1982. The relatively modern, I guess, sheen to it all isn't jarring so much as it is kind of anthropologically compelling. This is heightened by the fact that with this film, which is another musical, Demy returns to his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg "all singing, no dancing" roots.
The film is set in 1955 -- in Nantes, in or around which Demy set so many of his pictures -- and stars Richard Berry as Francois Guilbaud, a worker on strike as the film begins. He rents a room from Madame Langois (Danielle Darrieux), who may have a crush on him because of his youth and passion. She otherwise lives alone, both her husband and son having died, and her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) takes a somewhat antagonistic stance when it comes to her mother. Francois is dating Violette (Fabienne Guyon), but when Edith, married to an abusive and impotent TV salesman (Michel Piccoli, playing a role rather different from the gentle fellow he played in The Young Girls of Rochefort) takes to the streets to find a man to have sex with, she stumbles upon an unsatisfied Francois. They begin an affair and fall immediately in love, which leads to nothing good for anybody.
There's one thing about this film that I'm not crazy about, which I'll go ahead and deal with now. It's not the politics of the workers' protest, but rather the fact that in the film's climactic riot, the workers break the admittedly easy stand-off by throwing rocks at the police and then setting fire to cars. I'm sorry, but not every action is justified because your cause is righteous, all of which kind of feeds into my dislike of Francois. But I don't mind not liking Francois. His treatment of Violette sets that up anyway, and this, along with certain elements that in contemporary terms would be considered "adult" -- people die in this movie and there's nudity -- help transform Une Chambre en Ville into something truly operatic. Like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, much of this film is essentially domestic, and in that realm Danielle Darrieux walks away with the film (with the assistance of composer Michel Colombier, who wrote a beautifully nostalgic theme for her), but in the last half our the shit hits the fan, and on a purely dramatic level it's quite riveting -- it even ends with a bit of grotesque irony that recalls Otto Preminger's Angel Face, though otherwise the two films don't share a hell of a lot.
Anyway, it's both weird to see a film like this, even a French film, coming out of the 1980s, and admirable to see Jacques Demy continuing to explore the aesthetic ground into which he'd planted his flag almost twenty years earlier. He managed to stay unique decades into his career. A lot of people can't manage that after two films.