“French director Jacques Demy didn’t just make movies—he created an entire cinematic world.” So say the good folks at Criterion over at the page for the recently released box set of perhaps the most undervalued member of the French New Wave. Demy stood out compared to the rest of the movement, insofar as he embraced a lot of Hollywood cliches—storybook romances, melodrama, musicals (quelle horreur!). But at his best, Demy did all that while subverting audience expectations.
It’s nearly impossible to describe a Demy film without going gaga over the color schemes in his films. Brilliant, bright and bold (to say the least), his color films can sometimes blind the viewer with their sheer candy-colored exuberance. But this set proves that he wasn’t only interested in musicals and technicolor spectacle. Two of the six feature films herein (“Lola” and “Bay of Angels”) are black and white; on the surface, they appear to belong more to the French New Wave than to his more characteristic work.
Demy was something of an outlier with respect to the new wave of the '50s and '60s. If Godard was the experimentalist, Truffaut the humanist, and Chabrol the master of the thriller, then it’s only fair to describe Demy as a fantasist. But the six films in the set reveal depths that otherwise would be obscured. Mostly uninterested in the formal experimentation that define many of his contemporaries, he did his own thing, and audiences now have a chance to really dive in, thanks to Criterion.
Also of note is Demy's love for the ladies. His marriage to Agnès Varda (who survived Demy’s death from AIDS in 1990) seemed like a match made in movie nerd heaven. The women in his films were complex, smart, interesting and sexually confident: Most the female characters from his oeuvre still hold up today. He made Catherine Deneuve a star and also worked with Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau in their prime, gifting them all with wonderful roles. His films not only passed the Bechdel test, but flew by with flying colors.
Below we examine the six films given essential status by Criterion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Perhaps one of the earlier iterations of crisscrossing, interconnected lives through fate, chance and love (think the early films of Alejandro Innaritu), Demy's approachable debut "Lola" was distinctly different from his French New Wave contemporaries, eschewing their clipped and film-grammar bending realism for something much more romantic, fanciful and dreamy. Described as a "musical without the music” and a paean to the great German long-take director Max Ophuls, the lyrical and ultimately wistful “Lola” is at once a humanist drama and a romantic heartbreaker for its cast of characters. The movie focuses on but is not limited to its titular character (played by Anouk Aimée), a cabaret singer and dancer longing for the return of her long-lost absentee lover and father to her child who flew the coop to America seven years prior to make it rich. During this period, Lola (the stage name used by the character Cecile) encounters the restless Roland (Marc Michel) by chance, a childhood friend and ex-boyfriend who quickly becomes infatuated with her after initially rebuffing her advances. Complicating matters, Lola is also courted by the American sailor Frankie (Allan Scott) whom she occasionally sleeps with, before realizing he isn’t a source of stability either. Meanwhile, Roland has also met the lonesome widow Madame Desnoyer (Elina Labourdette) and her superbly charming teenage daughter, also called Cecile. She’s quite taken with him, but Roland is indifferent beyond his platonic interest in the plucky adolescent. A chronicle of longing and the painful ironies of unrequited love, “Lola” is a striking debut; Demy’s best outside of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” He later took many of these ideas and infused them into a masterful musical (perhaps “Lola” was the test-run for the picture). Ultimately fate intervenes, cracking the romantic notions of some characters and tearfully fulfilling the long ache of others. “Lola” defines the bittersweetness of life; a melancholy end for the unfortunate, and a new beginning for the lucky gal.
“Bay of Angels” (1963)
This gambling noir film is more akin—visually at least—to Jean-Pierre Melville’s pre-Nouvelle Vague “Bob le flambeur” than to Demy’s celebrated later films. While it’s lacking the candy-colored confectionery style he’d soon embrace with his next feature, there is already ample evidence here of his knack for knowing exactly how and where to move the camera to maximum effect, only here he employs a black-and-white palette perfectly suited to the material. It’s as much a cautionary tale as a wild at heart romance, set amidst the smoky, booze-filled roulette tables and sun-dappled beaches of southern France. The lovers are played by Claude Mann (“Army of Shadows”) and the irreplaceable Jeanne Moreau (“Jules and Jim,” “The Bride Wore Black”), who become attached via their lust for gambling. Mann is a bored but pragmatic every man who ditches his humdrum life as a banker to perpetually vacation in Nice, a popular gambling spot. Not long after he’s embroiled with Moreau’s character, a serious addict, and the rest of the film plays out in a series of romantic and financial ups and downs. There’s a bit too much repetitive montaging (anytime Michel Legrand’s soaring piano score kicks in, you can count on another shot of the roulette wheel spinning over shots of money exchanging hands) and the film pushes too hard for a romantic finale (Demy goes more for the heart here as opposed to his more hardened and realistic subsequent musicals), but ‘Angels’ works for the most part. Without it and the aforementioned Melville gambling film, you wouldn’t have PTA’s “Hard Eight.”
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964)
We already listed this “heart-on-sleeve romantic musical” as one of the 15 best Palme d’Or winners in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, so it’s safe to say we are big fans of Demy’s most famous and accomplished work. It really is something to behold, even for this writer who’s not exactly a fan of musicals. But even my wet blanket dries up every time I seen this heartbreaking rumination on young love and the cruel hand of fate tearing it apart. Visually, Demy reached a whole new level here; the brightly colored sets and costumes look as if the director opened up a bag of skittles, melted them down and splashed them across every frame. But the bubble gum pop art look, effective in conjuring a movie-world reminiscent of the old Hollywood style Demy was so enamored by, is something of a ruse, obscuring the gut-punch tragedy that’s unfolding right before our eyes, until it’s too late and the audience is left in a puddle of tears. It’s sad stuff, but getting there is an utter delight in the hands of Demy, here working for the first time with legend Catherine Deneuve in a role that perfectly utilizes her natural innocence and beauty. ‘Umbrellas’ takes on new meanings with every viewing: my first time I found it to be the saddest film I've ever seen; upon a second viewing, it seemed a more realistic take on the perils of falling hard in love so early in life (the conclusion felt less tragic and more pragmatic); the third time, I loved the whimsy and heartbreak, each element conjoining in a truly complex exploration on the fleeting, fluid nature of love and its often tough-to-swallow consequences. Did I mention every line of dialogue is sung?“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is truly magical.