Although it’s called The Essential Jacques Demy, this Criterion box set is missing one of the most interesting and well-known of his films, Model Shop, which is the only one Demy made in the US. Instead, the set focuses mostly on his musicals (or at least films with musical elements). Three are full-blown musicals, and the other three are not musicals per se but, especially in the case of Donkey Skin, the influence of musicals is all over them. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort have always been well-known, but Demy’s ranking on the list of French new wave directors has definitely gone up in recent years. He was certainly one of the most consistent of that group—although it helps that he died quite young.
Demy had an extraordinary talent for colour and a deep love of musicals as a genre, although his films are always a bit gloomy nonetheless. They are also almost all set on the coast.
The first film here is Lola, which owes a debt to The Blue Angel. A young man runs into his former girlfriend, Lola (Anouk Aimée), who is now a single mother and a cabaret dancer. He starts to fall back in love with her, but it doesn’t go completely to plan because other men are also vying for her heart. Demy always said it was “a musical without music.” Aimée, who is brilliant, appears again in Model Shop. Like Quentin Tarantino, Demy kind of made his own cinematic universe within his films: Model Shop is technically a sequel to Lola, although it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen it.
Bay of Angels is the film that’s most untypical of Demy, as it’s one that you could imagine Godard or Truffaut doing. I‘m guessing that Demy wasn’t that comfortable making it. It’s a gloom-laden love affair between a young gambler (Jeanne Moreau) who’s been banned from almost everywhere and a bank clerk. It has kind of a happy ending but you’re not quite sure where it might go later. You don’t get a great sense of the world of gambling either, unlike Altman’s California Split, or Mississippi Grind. A lot of it is set in Nice, a coastal casino city. It’s short and pacy, and runs along quite quickly.
Kurt Vonnegut once said about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: “I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.” It stars Catherine Deneuve, and what makes it especially interesting is that it’s a musical where every line of dialogue is sung, with no normal speech in between. It has great use of colour, used in a very unique way. Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, has said it’s his favourite film, and you can see its influence there. The plot is simple: boy meets girl, against the backdrop of the Algerian war. Although Demy’s films were not overtly political (his wife Agnès Varda’s certainly were) this does have a political tinge.
If you want to know more about The Young Girls of Rochefort, click here to my recent review.
Jean Cocteau was a big influence on all the French new wave directors, and Demy’s Donkey Skin is a fairy tale that wears this influence heavily. A king’s wife has passed away, and the king (Jean Marais, who played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus in Orphée, and was Cocteau’s on/off lover for many years) needs to find a replacement so he can father a male heir. He decides the only way to do this is by marrying his daughter, the princess, played by Catherine Deneuve. The princess says she will only marry him if he can meet some crazy demands—but he manages to do so. She runs away and becomes a pig-keeper, and a young prince becomes involved. It’s a wacky story for a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it is a dark plotline, in this case about incest. Both leads are great, and the visuals are really fantastic, there’s even a helicopter that appears in there. The simple special effects go back to Cocteau, who was a master of that kind of thing. It has a musical number, but isn’t actually a musical.
Une Chambre en Ville is a very interesting movie. Set against the backdrop of a 1955 workers’ strike in Nantes, it‘s probably Demy’s most explicitly political film. A young shipyard worker with anarchist sympathies, Francois (Richard Barry), is renting a room from a widow. He’s going out with a nice girl called Violette, but then he meets a beautiful woman, Edith, who is wearing nothing but a fur coat. Edith is married to the horrible owner of a television shop, and she is a part-time prostitute. Francois soon finds out that she’s also the daughter of his landlady, As you might imagine, it all gets quite complicated… It’s completely sung, and features some amazing wallpaper. The music is actually the weak point. It’s set in 1955, but the score is filled with 80s synths that really date it badly. As you might imagine, it all ends in tragedy, although you were somewhat hopeful along the way. It’s one of Demy’s most underrated films, and has not been seen as widely as the others.
The box set is rammed with extras, including four of Demy’s pre-Lola short films. There are two documentaries made by Agnès Varda, visual essays, archival interviews and French TV episodes, interviews with Varda, stuff from various critics and more, including a big book of essays. So if you like Jacques Demy, it’s pretty much a must-own. You’ll come away with a good sense of his movies—but do seek out a copy of Model Shop to go with the set.