Videophiled Classic: ‘The Essential Jacques Demy’

JacquesDemyThe Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) collects six features and a few early shorts from the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic. It’s not my intention to rate him against the movement’s most famous filmmakers – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Varda – but just to find his place among them. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings.

Criterion’s 13-disc set, one of their last to come out in the Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format, picks six of his defining films from his 1961 debut to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut in this set, all transferred from restored and remastered HD editions.

Lola (1961) is a bittersweet musical without the music, lovingly shot in Demy’s hometown of Nantes in black and white CinemaScope by Nouvelle Vague master Raoul Coutard, and set to a lovely score by Michel Legrand. Anouk Aimee, whose appearance in lacy tights, boa, and top hat made her an eternal pin-up dream, is a single mother looking for the father of her child in the port towns of Nantes. As in so many of his films, Demy reveals himself as both eager romantic and sadder-but-wiser realist, and for all the dashed dreams of the film it still manages to have its swoony romantic fantasy come true.

His second feature Bay of Angels (1963) is a comparatively morose affair compared to the rest of the films in the set, with Jeanne Moreau as a compulsive gambler and insolent beauty lost in her addiction on the Cote d’Azur, but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is, at least in spirit, a return to Lola as a genuine Technicolor musical, one that is entirely sung from a libretto by Demy set to Michel Legrand’s famed score. Catherine Deneuve, looking so young it’s hard to believe she matured into Belle de Jour just a few years later, and fresh faced Nino Castelnuovo are young lovers separated by the Algerian war and the complications of life. The candy colored sets suggests the great Hollywood musicals: bright, clean, a utopian world, but with a distinctly French flavor. Instead of elaborate numbers we get intimate staging where every movement becomes like a dance, and in place of a traditional happy ending is a realization of how circumstances, compromises and life itself take us in different directions.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) takes a brighter approach – it all takes place in the sun-drenched provincial town of Rochefort – and a more traditional approach to the musical itself. Deneuve co-stars for the first and only time with her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac (they play cinematic siblings looking for love in the excitement of a summer weekend fair) and George Chakiris and Hollywood dancer Grover Dale are the young boys who woo the young girls through dance. Echoing these innocent romantic flirtations are Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux as long lost lovers searching for their past in a world of deep, glowing colors. From its opening jazzy dance on a ferry, which becomes a veritable magic carpet floating above a sparkling river before the scene is over, it’s a delight. And Demy tips his hat to the grand old musicals of Hollywood with an appearance by Gene Kelly.

Donkey Skin (1970) is Demy in fantasy mode, more Cocteau than Vincent Minnelli, with Cocteau’s Beast himself Jean Marais as the King of a fairy tale kingdom, but it too turns to musical interludes, including Delphine Seyrig singing a song to princess Catherine Deneuve about why girls shouldn’t marry their daddies. Yes, it’s a rather perverse story, based on the Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, both innocent and bizarre and carried by Demy’s airy direction, tongue-in-cheek wit, and mischievous sense of fantasy. Michel Legrand’s songs are right out of the late sixties nightclub style.

These have all been available on DVD but this new set, which presents their respective Blu-ray debuts in the U.S., are mastered from recent restorations, all executed between 2011 and 2013 by Ciné-Tamaris in France, and they are stunning.

The sixth and final Demy feature on the set makes its American home video debut. Une Chambre en Ville (1982) is another bittersweet Demy musical that is entirely sung to an operatic score, this one set during a worker’s strike in 1955 Nantes. It’s filled with regret, romantic turbulence, and easily Demy’s most savage ending to troubled relationships. Watching this for the first time, reflecting on the earlier films in the set, it brought home just how interesting Demy’s politics could be. The worker’s strike is ostensibly in the background of the romantic storylines but it opens on a clash between protesters and police, a violent one at that, and the social and political tensions pull at the characters all through the film, from the war widow (Danielle Darrieux) who is a reflexive conservative yet no longer idealizes military heroism or a man in uniform to loyal union man and strike leader François (Richard Berry), her boarder and pretty much her only company. Dominique Sanda is the widow’s daughter, who married for security and is now miserable with her pathologically jealous TV salesman husband (Michel Piccoli in a red beard that make him look like a mutant leprechaun). Demy is also refreshingly frank when it comes to sex and love. How many pregnancies figure in the lives of his young lovers? Sanda, who is terribly unfulfilled both sexually and emotionally, grabs at both when she gets that electric charge of sudden attraction. Not something you expect in a musical, even in 1982.

Demy’s own work is rounded out with four early shorts: Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962).

The supplements on this set are superbly curated and we can probably thank Agnes Varda, Demy’s widow and a fellow Nouvelle Vague filmmaker with a magnificent career in her own right, for a lot of it. She collaborated on the restorations and contributed two documentaries she made on Demy: The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995). There’s a small library of archival TV programs on the films, including the 2008 documentary “Once Upon a Time… The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and interviews with the filmmakers and actors involved on the various films.

The highlight of the original supplements produced for this collection is the hour-long “Jacques Demy, A to Z,” a visual essay by James Qaundt that takes stock of the director’s influences and inspirations. There is also a video conversation with Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau and new interviews with author Marie Colmant and film scholar Rodney Hill and short featurettes on the restorations of four of the features on the set. The booklet includes essays on each of the films by critics Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne Duggan, and Geoff Andrew, with a postscript by Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé.