“More than any other film I know, Umbrellas [of Cherbourg] affects people differently at different stages of life,” Criterion essayist Jim Ridley observes in his analysis of the 1964 Palme d’or winner recently remastered, restored and chosen for inclusion in the company’s exquisite new dual format Blu-ray and DVD editions of The Essential Jacques Demy.
And as not only my gateway Demy picture but a personal favorite to this day, Ridley’s point-of-view has been one I’ve always unconsciously shared with the evolving realization that I found a deeper appreciation for and understanding of characters and plot points that had previously eluded me with each new screening and/or every passing year.
Revisiting the film that I’d viewed endlessly during my teens and twenties in preparation for this piece, I realized that although it’d been at least ten years since I’d last visited Cherbourg onscreen, I had no trouble singing along here or there (in my nonsensical French) and anticipating certain images that had become permanently etched in my mind.
Yet this time something was different and I couldn’t quite place it until I moved onto explore the other titles included in the Criterion Collection’s box set. For while the emotional, aesthetic, and sensual impact of the work was as potent as ever and easily affected me right from the start, I was stunned to discover this time around that – now in my thirties – it’s actually Demy’s first feature Lola vs. Umbrellas that has taken its place at the top of the list as my most cherished Demy.
While I’d always admired the filmmaker’s feature debut, previously the introduction of Anouk Aimée’s beguilingly over animated, lonely cabaret dancer who pines for her first (and last) lost love that had fathered her son and then fled to earn his fortune seemed like the personification of idealized femininity.
Historically of course, she's one of many larger-than-life goddesses born out of the film buff worship that filled so many of the masculine driven works of the French New Wave auteurs including Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and Rohmer.
Yet while Aimée’s now iconic turn as Lola was one in a long line of New Wave women under the influence of the male gaze that were played by the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve, and Jean Seberg, Aimée's seems the most heartbreakingly real.
Unlike her contemporaries who were created as part of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd's incarnation of the American Femme fatales they worshiped that wound up leading men to their deaths in Breathless or Jules and Jim, the person Aimée's Lola was at the greatest risk of hurting was herself.
Throughout the titular film, Demy’s passion for his chosen medium pays off both referentially and by more obvious homage as Aimée’s character seems to owe as much to Max Ophüls (to whom Lola is dedicated) as she does to Blue Angel’s Marlene Dietrich in that she’s always “on” even in a world without screens capturing her every move.
However, given the way that today the male gaze has been heightened to greater levels than ever before among those in the selfie generation who thrive to share their lives through social media like characters in a film versus everyday people, Anouk Aimée’s Lola no longer seems as self-consciously cinematic as I’d previously perceived it to be.
Beauty may be skin deep but the true beauty of Aimée’s daring performance has only grown deeper with time as an actress taking on a character who’s always acting (at least to some extent) while choosing which sides of her real or “rehearsed” personae she wants to reveal.
What I’d dismissed back then to be little more than a virgin/whore infused “It Girl” archetype has evolved to become its own allegory on what it means to be a woman in today’s society where true heartbreak and hope are hidden beneath the makeup and model poses of Lola’s surface level beauty that most people she encounters fails (as I had) to see.
Concealing her true emotions from a clientele who chooses to view her in a way they’d like her to be (including the American sailors that miss their girlfriends back home) by way of the intentional artificiality – much like Audrey Hepburn’s Marilyn Monroe inspired Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lola tries on as many “characters” as she does costumes in the film's 90 minute running time.
And despite its female centric character, the deceptively simple black and white work is nonetheless centered on a colorful cast of characters (in Demy’s beloved, nostalgically realized seaside setting of Nantes) whose lives intersect both in this picture as well as in future titles the filmmaker would release.
As structurally ambitious as it is stylistically audacious, Demy’s “musical without [much] music” is an obviously influential film its own right given the questions of fate and the fluid nature of time that are woven throughout the narrative.
Following its thrilling opening, Lola continues and we start to piece together its many connections, whether it's in the present day-to-day life of one seemingly random supporting character that harks back to our titular heroine’s past or the way that dreams and memories are referenced in one scene mere moments before or after those exact events come true in another.
As seemingly spontaneous as it is carefully staged, Demy’s mastery of storytelling is apparent throughout the breathtakingly fast-paced work. And the result is a film so jaw-droppingly impressive that makes you question in retrospect if his decision to move from black and white realism to colorful cinematic operas was a creative double-edged sword in that it both freed and inhibited him in equal measure.
For as artistically fulfilling as his future opuses were, when you view them back-to-back with the more freewheeling and natural Lola and Bay of Angels, you can't help but recognize how restrained he was in his narrative execution due to their strict musical format, which is perhaps most evident in Une Chambre en ville.
A fully realized first effort, Lola introduces a number of themes, styles, plot points, and archetypes that would fill the rest of Demy’s cinematic oeuvre including his penchant for populating his work with characters he introduced in one film who reappear years later in another – similar to the way that Lola's past and present collide onscreen.
Unfortunately, with this in mind, the set is notably missing Demy’s then-maligned but now Mad Men re-certified Model Shop which caught up with Aimée’s Lola after she was allegedly “murdered” offscreen in a tragic conversational reference in Rochefort (which likewise subtly foreshadowed the tragic turn later ‘70s and ‘80s made Demy pictures would take).
Yet even without his English language Shop debut, this spectacular Criterion box set gives you ample opportunity to better appreciate the multilayered storytelling of the surprisingly complex Lola.
A lost New Wave classic in that it deserves to be ranked alongside the films of Demy’s contemporaries, Lola was funded by the same friend of Godard’s who bankrolled Breathless as well as the breakthrough effort of Demy wife, Agnes Varda’s masterful Cleo From 5 to 7.
Intriguing in the way that it anticipates Demy’s future use of color motifs even in black and white, watching Lola today, you get the strong sense that Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy owes a great deal of gratitude to this French filmmakers essential works.
Much like Kieślowski’s frequent collaboration with his composer Zbigniew Preisner proved to be a driving force in his trilogy (particularly in a Demy-like coincidence in Red where the offscreen music written by an onscreen character in Blue is sought out by would-be Red lovers we weren’t aware had any knowledge of those in Blue), Demy’s legendary partnership with Michel Legrand is established in this first film.
Aside from some memorable musical moments like Aimée’s introductory song (which predates the same type performed by the fast-talking offscreen and onscreen sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort), Lola opens with a masterful opening sequence that meanders through a handful of various musical types in the length of a seaside drive.
A promising first glimpse of the pair’s professional collaboration in action, Demy and Legrand grew bolder in their next picture – experimenting to figure out exactly what they could achieve together with the juxtaposition of words, moving pictures, and music on display in his startling sophomore effort Bay of Angels.
Essentially you could attribute the construct of Angels to two lines of dialogue from his first film wherein Lola’s male hero argues that “in the movies, it’s always beautiful,” along with a proud single mother’s warning about the dangers of gambling.
While the first quote expresses a sentiment undoubtedly shared by Truffaut and other movie-mad New Wave helmers, the combination of both lines together created Demy's tough and tender Bay of Angels.
Demy's version of the same Noir like world embraced by his colleagues – Angels introduces us to two beautiful losers who cling together out of a shared passion for roulette that they’re unable to duplicate in their lives no matter how many lies they tell themselves or each other.
Foreshadowing the sky high romantic notes and three hankie lows he had in store in his future spoken word musical operettas, Demy employs Legrand’s gifts on a greater level in his sophomore picture.
In Bay of Angels more is conveyed in the cinematic juxtaposition of a look, a spinning roulette wheel and the right piano chords on the soundtrack than his actors (Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann) say in the entirety of their dialogue during the film’s succinct running time, especially given how little truth there is in the words vs. the emotional subtext of Legrand’s score.
Beginning once again with the image of a car this time driving away from an unforgettable figure vs. driving towards the eventually revealed reunion with the eponymous figure in Lola, in Angels (as well as Demy’s previous picture), we initially identify with the average male character who serves as our onscreen surrogate.
Guiding us through as Criterion essayist Terrence Rafferty writes “a kind of wonderland where the rules of ordinary life seem to have been suspended for awhile,” in a move similar to Lola, we follow another one of Demy's men into mazes of their own making. And in art as in life, Demy's selection of men to lead us into the lens probably owes as much to the fact that the films are made by a man on a journey as well.
Yet at the same time nonetheless from the picture's very first shot of popular New Wave muse Jeanne Moreau, we realize as Rafferty does in one of Criterion’s most poetic essays that “the soul of every movie by Jacques Demy is a woman.”
Based on an experience at Cannes with Varda where they attended the festival on behalf of her work Cleo, the married filmmakers wandered into a casino where – according to the bevy of bonus material that fills the entire film school worthy collection – Demy bet on seventeen and won big.
Filled with mixed emotions, the uneasy Demy left the casino, vowing to make a movie about as he said “a passion laid bare” by treating the ritual of gambling like any decadent and dangerously risky behavior to the point that it could allegorically stand in for any addiction from alcohol to drugs or sex.
Always worried about succumbing to debauchery in his own life (which he attributes to a puritanical background in Varda’s wonderful World of Jacques Demy), perhaps in this sense – and despite the autobiographical allusions that run through his other films – it’s this reason that makes Bay seem in retrospect to be the most personal of Jacques Demy’s works.
And certainly it’s the most cinematically purest offering in Criterion’s Essential collection in that he doesn’t load the frame with MGM golden age style razzle dazzle or have the benefit of Technicolor to paint an overly impressionistic picture.
Therefore it’s worth noting that his son (and filmmaker in his own right) Mathieu Demy – who oversaw many of the restorations of the Criterion transfers – cited it as his own favorite entry in his father’s entire filmography.
Continuing on with the same sense of character motifs and similarities evidenced on the screen via the studied, rehearsed “spontaneity” of Lola who – despite being a single mom is always seen and viewed through the eyes of men masquerading as her friends but always long to be her lovers – Moreau’s Jackie is another larger-than-life, lust-worthy New Wave woman.
A big-screen hybrid from the screwball era who speaks a mile a minute, Jackie has a manic personality that – much like her appearance – seems divided in half in its tendency to ping-pong from one extreme to the other.
Like the black and white colors of the roulette game captured onscreen, she wears a predominately black and white color palette that accentuates not only the black and white film but also – as Rafferty reveals – the black and white aspects of her Marilyn/Jackie-styled appearance and identity.
A peroxide bottle blonde with garishly bad makeup that looks Felliniesque at times in close-up (and makes Moreau look decades older than she is), Moreau’s Jackie is a virgin/whore dichotomy of a mother who’s gambled away her child and then finds a replacement child/friend/lover in Mann’s much younger businessman.
Making all the wrong mistakes in a headstrong youthful defiance not to succumb to the cliché he’s already halfway on the path to epitomizing, we watch helplessly as Mann’s deceptively clean-cut “in control” young businessman ignores his father’s warning of the unlucky road ahead, having fallen for the spin of the wheel in a single afternoon that hooked him faster than a seductive blonde.
With the rush of his first win still in his eyes, he sets out for the lure of bigger casinos with greater risks and rewards. He finds both in Jackie, whom he’d first set eyes on getting thrown out of a casino back home in a lurid red flag of a scene that somehow doesn’t translate to Mann in his – and this – world of black and white.
Whether emotionally he’s looking for his own absent mother, longing to quash his loneliness or lured in by lust (in one of the many infusions of incest, impotence, and other sexual frustrations that will fill Demy’s future work on a number of levels) is up for debate.
However, the one thing that’s certain about the two is that they’d leave each other in a minute if their luck started to change. And with nowhere for them to go but down – drowning even faster with double the baggage and addictions – it’s that exact revelation that begins to drive them apart as the only way out of the deep end of the Bay is to sink or (try to) swim.
A far cry from many of the tame swinging bachelor sex comedies playing in the states during the exact same time period, Angels offers an interesting twist in gender dynamics in that this time it’s the man who believes he can change a flawed woman for the better and not the other way around.
While admittedly there are some problems with the development and pace of the first act in questioning whether or not Mann would really fall that fast for roulette or Moreau’s blonde anchor, the depiction of addiction and the constant stream of lies, excuses, and rationalizations that begin to morally, emotionally, and ethically bankrupt our protagonist remains as timely and troubling today.
A Days of Wine and Roses for gamblers, it’s a impressive spin on the smooth Rat Pack cool of men holding court in casinos while planning any number of schemes that still works as well for its subject allegorically as Wine and Roses does literally.
Replacing the complex structural narrative of Lola’s character-driven storyline with a much more intimate chamber film approach, Demy pares everything down to his goal of "a passion laid bare” to put us in rooms we don’t want to be in with people we probably would never get to know without the safety net of being on the other side of the silver screen.
Filled with haunting visuals, to me Bay’s clever employment of the same Legrand theme to embody the high achieved by a rushing roulette wheel has been the film's greatest legacy on the decades of movies that would follow (from the morning repetitions in All That Jazz and beyond). Highly influential, it's this technique that makes Bay equal to if not greater than Lola in its effect and impact as a “musical without [traditional] music.”
Lingering well into the music video generation of today, the subtle yet influential artistry of a recurring musical and visual theme calls to mind the visceral impact of of Clint Mansell’s soaring score with the hyperkinetic images experienced in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
And watching Angels today leaves you in little doubt that whether directly from the source of Bay or indirectly from the films and directors Angels influenced (like Bob Fosse's Jazz), Aronofsky learned a little something about killer mise en scene and editing for intoxicating effect from Demy.
Interested in proving popular opinion wrong that you can’t make a French musical, despite a handful of films he’d cited as charming minor pictures, in 1964 Jacques Demy finally got the chance to make the movie he’d been dreaming about since he was first exposed to American musicals in a local film club after World War II.
The result is the bittersweet and breathtakingly beautiful Umbrellas of Cherbourg which was not only his foray into the genre he would embrace repeatedly in his future career but also his first lavish color production that established his style around the word, putting him, Legrand and his twenty-year-old discovery Catherine Deneuve on the map internationally.
More operatic in its scope – complete with an early reference to Bizet’s Carmen (whose work he would revisit in the thematically similar yet tragically darker Une Chambre en ville) – Umbrellas utilized the musical virtuosity of Legrand as his chief collaborator wherein Demy penned all of the dialogue which would be transformed into lyrics and spoken/sung.
With the cast lip-syncing to the audio track, it freed up the actors to truly lose themselves in the emotional meaning of each scene, capably and quite naturally conveying the audio without the theatrical mugging of the old-fashioned silent film era that it was saluting in its pioneering technical spirit.
In that respect harking back to the old Chaplin film reels that Demy would dip into water in order to draw on to make his own "movies" as a child – now that he had the opportunity to blend new and old for real, Demy and his film school colleagues filled each frame with endless detail.
From the gorgeously color-coated, pattern-on-pattern matches in costuming and production design to the selection and placement of every linen, glass surface, dish or umbrella – Demy turned up the dial on the bright colors of Sirk and Minnelli to new heights – making a film that would translate regardless of language on an emotional, sensual, visual and poetic level.
A rather simple tale of young lovers separated for two years during the Algerian war and the aftermath that occurs when the girl finds herself both pregnant and easily overwhelmed by her almost bankrupt mother, Umbrellas dealt with the themes of social class, military service, secrets, and romantic drama of missed connections and timing that Demy would weave throughout his entire filmography.
Revisiting some of the topics and indeed one of the key characters from Lola (whose role and relationship with Demy’s first heroine definitely foreshadowed his willingness to do with he feels is right here), Criterion’s collection plays even better when viewed in order as it does when you jump from film to film.
And it’s because of his tendency to tell similar stories from new perspectives or meander back and forth in the lives of minor players that become major ones later (or vice versa) that made me wish that Demy’s entire oeuvre would’ve been served up here for review. But while I’m sure Criterion will release more Demy pictures down the road, this set offers fans a thrilling opportunity to revisit his most beloved works once again.
A tale of love across distance and time – similar to the one pined for by his eponymous Lola that was also used as a character-defining motivation and/or source of regret for many of the (often single) mothers who would fill his frames – Umbrellas pushed the boundaries of how to reach a viewer.
Creating its own sensory experience, the picture solidified Demy’s unique filmic language and overall cinematic goal of playing to the heart of a viewer as opposed to merely focusing on their mind.
Brilliant in the fearless way that it embraces the sad and sour as well as the sweet and syrupy, the main issues Umbrellas addresses in life, love, and one’s existential pursuit of happiness (with regard to facing reality for what it is vs. what we perceive it to be) remains as vital and paramount today as they were in '64.
Although he would further explore the dark potential of Cherbourg's themes in Chambre by multiplying the love triangle by two and taking it in a much more tragic direction, this remains one of the best musicals ever made, even if – much like every picture he helmed – it seems shortsighted to try to pin it down into one single genre.
While the Hollywoodized New Wave romantic French tragedy A Man and a Woman (ironically starring Aimée) released a few years later was designed to cash in on the success of international romances, Demy’s next film proved he was willing to push his genre experimentation even further.
Bringing over American stars like Gene Kelly and West Side Story’s George Chakiris for his seemingly far more escapist musical effort The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy added dance to the mix this time around.
Opting to leave the claustrophobic Cherbourg interiors of small shops and houses behind for the wide open spaces of a town square as carnies arrive in the titular town of Rochefort to set up the fair, the director moved away from strict operatic structure to bring us a French Hollywood Musical: Jacques Demy Style.
Mixing together spoken dialogue and traditional songs, the film which is tragically the sole picture to co-star real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac before the latter’s untimely death sets a majority of its action in the open café run by the mother of the girls, which is where most of the film’s characters meet and miss one another.
Intriguingly while Demy hoped to break the mold of French filmmaking to show his country a different type of genre work, in the end, he helped establish a new style of filmmaking for which his country has become famous.
More than three decades before Amelie, he created in Rochefort the epitome of today's big ensemble French films where would-be lovers are always just a few seconds away from a meet-cute and characters are unknowingly connected by far fewer than six Kevin Bacon-like degrees.
And although this one is bursting at the seams with energy and ambition – not to mention so many subplots that the sisters have to lip-synch faster than the overly-caffeinated Gilmore Girls in order to even begin to cover all the action – it’s as ambitious and boisterous as it is tonally uneven, lyrically clunky, and slightly overlong.
Using the musical equivalent of filler dialogue that sometimes contradicts what we were previously told, at times it’s all we can do to keep up with the information we must read at the bottom of the screen and then piece together with any number of characters in the context of an overcrowded scene.
Needless to say (and in a backwards step from the universality of Umbrellas), despite its astounding entertainment value, Rochefort ultimately plays best to those with an impeccable grasp of the French language.
Filled with so much plot that Demy could’ve made two pictures instead of one, in one miscalculation of content and context, there’s a sinister Chabrol-worthy undercurrent to the otherwise frothy film as characters learn of the grisly lady-killer who may have made Demy’s Lola his previous victim (before Demy opted to bring her back in Model Shop).
While all of the romantic subplots and connections (whether missed, coincidental, or otherwise) are as irresistible as ever and will surely appeal to fans of Amelie, Chocolat, and Love Actually, this time around, complex doesn’t work nearly as well for Demy as it did in Lola.
Often mistakenly lumped together as a twosome with Umbrellas, in my eyes and from a narrative perspective, just like Cherbourg works best as a precursor to Une Chambre en ville, Rochefort is the musical kindred spirit to Lola (in spite of a Lola character's overlap in Umbrellas).
Yet before he would make his ‘80s Cesar nominated critical comeback picture, Demy adapted a story he’d loved since childhood in his own French musical fairytale Donkey Skin.
An incestuous hybrid of Cinderella along with a number of other fairytales from Snow White to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, it’s safe to say that this story of a widowed king who vows to marry his beautiful daughter (in a dual role by Deneuve who also portrays the deceased queen) is one classic children’s property that Walt Disney won’t be remaking anytime soon…without some serious rewrites.
Although to outsiders it’s understandably hard to overlook the “ick” factor in a work that I’m sure you must’ve had to grow up with to be excited to see, Donkey Skin plays completely differently to children in France as different versions of the story had been released over the centuries to lessen some of the more disturbing elements of the piece including the princess’s eponymous disguise.
Based on the 1694 work by Charles Perrault that Criterion essayist Anne E. Duggan notes “has antecedents” in Italian sixteenth and seventeenth century fairytales, while updated interpretations of the story published after 1900 removed the incestuous storyline altogether, Demy opted to stay true to the original, which was based on the reign of Louis XIV, whose court was dubbed that of the “Sun King.”
And while Deneuve notes how wildly popular the film was with viewers around the globe and among all generations in Varda’s enlightening World of Jacques Demy, unfortunately given that the daughter seems torn in her response to the proposal, the chastely handled yet nonetheless creepy Donkey is still the one work that’s aged the least successfully of those served up in Essential Jacques Demy.
Skipping over many others from the '70s and '80s including a second overt fairytale via the rat and plague filled Pied Piper from 1972, the aforementioned Model Shop which has received newfound interest given its inclusion (along with the director’s other films) in the acclaimed series Mad Men, the set ends on a somber and impressive (if flawed) note for Demy.
Following a few flops like A Slightly Pregnant Man, Lady Oscar and more, Demy returned to his romantic roots – using the building blocks of Carmen, Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde to create the foundation of Une Chambre en ville.
Relying on the same structure of sung dialogue and the overcrowded colorful frames he'd used to construct cinematic masterpieces in the past, Demy touched once again on themes and character types that had echoed throughout his work from the very beginning.
While this one takes place even earlier than the Algerian War era setting of his most internationally beloved Oscar nominee – much like Dirty Dancing – Chambre seems more firmly rooted in the ‘80s due to its overly modern score by Purple Rain composer Michel Colombier and certain anachronistic costumes like a neon pink shirt for the masculine lead.
A tragic romance that weaves its tale of fate and coincidence during the tumultuous ship builder’s strike in ‘50s Nantes (the setting of Lola), while this work is centered on easily Demy’s most likably challenged heroine since Bay's Jackie, while Moreau was playing an addict, there’s not much you can say to defend the characterization of the selfish Edith (Dominique Sanda).
Newly married to a rich older TV salesman (Michael Piccoli), Edith decides to get revenge on not only his impotence but also his dominant, controlling nature by spending her nights cruising the Nantes streets – naked under a mink coat – working as the equivalent of a part time hooker yet with more interest in provocation than she has in any sort of monetary payment.
Propositioning the handsome lead (Richard Berry) who has a beautiful young girlfriend Violette (Fabienne Guyon) who’s as sweet as she is secretly pregnant, while Violette hopes to marry the man she loves, one night with the faux streetwalker finds Edith and our lead madly in love.
Logic-strained and again challenging in our empathy for the characters given the way that Edith swings back and forth like a pendulum, while there’s also some sloppy writing involving Edith’s husband, things reach a violent climax far too quickly.
Further testing our ability to sustain disbelief, the credibility of the piece is threatened by oddly staged character blocking in a final sequence wherein the actors irrationally stand by and simply let an emotionally distraught person take their own life.
So carefully orchestrated with every person and object positioned just so to the benefit of the right texture, shade and set decoration to paint a still rather than moving picture, Une Chambre’s emphasis on beauty above all things usurps the emotional power of the piece due to its overwhelming artificiality.
Lacking the understated power of his earliest films in which characters drove the plot rather than the other way around that made even the practiced spontaneity of Anouk Aimée’s Lola feel so passionately vibrant and alive, the painterly Chambre, has been more often compared to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Visconti’s Senso than the earlier and much more humanistic oeuvre of Demy.
Fortunately, it still boasts some terrific sequences – the most impressive of which take place during the angry worker strikes on the city streets which reflect the same union struggles occurring during that same period in the U.K. and overseas.
As such, Chambre shows you that Demy is at his best when he finds himself inspired by every day, contemporary life whether it’s via casinos and dance halls or carnies and day laborers of the not-so-distant past.
Loaded with multiple discs worth of interviews and features too plentiful to list in complete detail here – one of the grandest inclusions is Varda’s extraordinary World of Demy that makes us long for the Harrison Ford/Jacques Demy movie that Hollywood never let us see.
One of the most anticipated releases of the 2014, this Criterion Collection set is a film school worthy study of a man who vowed to never stop learning, even though he already knew (when he got his first camera at age thirteen) precisely what it is that he wanted to be.
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