Maybe it’s the misfits who define a movement.
Jacques Demy was an outlier among the directors of the French New Wave, to the point where many film-lovers don’t even think of him as part of the gang. In this blinkered view, Truffaut and Godard laid the major groundwork, Chabrol earned respect with his neo-Hitchockian mind games, and Rohmer made the world safe for sexy talkathons. Even Jacques Rivette, with his unseen 12-hour epics and parables of artifice and paranoia, has his acolytes.
But Demy? For many people, there’s 1964’s incandescent “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and that’s where the matter stops. You can almost understand why: It’s a film that is unique and just about perfect, an expansion of Hollywood’s musical esthetic to embrace bittersweet romance, hyperreal colors, and an impossibly beautiful 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve.
Demy’s 1967 singing, dancing follow-up, “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” is almost as well remembered, but only hardened Francophiles in this country have seen the director’s first two, nonmusical features, “Lola” (1961) and “Bay of Angels” (1963). And Demy’s later career was chalked up as something of an embarrassment in France and never seen here. Godard was busy dismantling the bourgeoisie on screen, so how seriously could one take Demy — that provincialist — with his musical fairy tales, versions of Greek myths set in parking garages, and tempestuous all-singing melodramas about striking dockworkers?
Very seriously, it turns out. The Criterion Collection’s recently released “The Essential Jacques Demy” reclaims the work and reputation of one of the cinema’s most daring dreamers. A dual-format box set, it offers each of its six films in both DVD and Blu-ray, and the chance to see “Umbrellas” and “Young Girls” in the latter format is itself worth the $100 retail price.
The world had never seen anything like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” when it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 1964 and went on to rack up five Oscar nominations. It’s a very French tale of young love gained and lost, set in a coastal French city: Realism, right? Yet all the dialogue is sung to Michel Legrand’s swoony melodies and Jean Rabier’s camerawork turns Cherbourg into a candy-colored paintbox of primary hues and primal emotions. For all its formal daring, this is a fragile masterpiece; Demy uses the conventions of high-’50s Hollywood cinema to capture what youthful passion looks like from the inside, before the inevitable fade. (That’s why old film prints of “Umbrellas,” with their dulled colors, are really only half a movie.)
“The Young Girls of Rochefort” is to dancing what the earlier film is to singing, and it’s a happier occasion — a celebration set in a town carnival where everyone eventually gets who and what they want. That includes imported supporting players Gene Kelly, older but still beaming that Pepsodent grin, and George Chakiris from “West Side Story,” both men spinning like tops. Yet there’s a darkness that hovers over the movie, onscreen in the person of a jolly old charmer (Henri Cremieux) who turns out to be a wife-murderer, and off-screen in the auto accident that took the life of Francoise Dorleac — Deneuve’s older sister and costar — mere months after the film’s release. A modern moviegoer needs to see “Rochefort” for its colors, for the graceful Kelly, for the amazing multi-level camerawork in the town square — but mostly for the delightful, heartbreaking sister act at its center.
“Umbrellas” and “Rochefort” are the two gems of “The Essential Jacques Demy,” but a case could be made that the earlier “Lola” and “Bay of Angels” are equally striking in their very different fashion and that “Bay” in particular may be the strongest and most underrated film Demy ever made. Both are much closer to the spirit of the early French New Wave than is generally credited, and not just because they’re shot in black-and-white. “Lola,” Demy’s first feature after a series of short films (most of them included as extras in the Criterion set), is a love letter to his coastal hometown of Nantes and especially to Anouk Aimee as the carefree cabaret singer of the title — a frivolous, adorable dreamgirl who looks back to Max Ophuls’s “Lola Montes” and Marlene Dietrich as Lola in “The Blue Angel.” “Lola” is a film made on the cheap — even a restored version can’t buff off all the dusty spots — but you can sense Demy already working toward his grand fusion of French reality and Hollywood fantasy.
“Bay” is a drama, ostensibly about gambling addiction, with Claude Mann as a sober young man seduced into the ruinous Cote D’Azur casinos by Jeanne Moreau, playing a bottle-blonde temptress. For Demy, though, this was a story about passion first and foremost, and what looks like a cautionary tale becomes a celebration of recklessness — of riding the waves of chance — with Michel Legrand’s piano theme booming like a thunderstorm every time the couple sits down at the roulette tables. Moreau has rarely seemed so beautifully monstrous (or monstrously beautiful); “Bay of Angels” opens with the camera fleeing from her at top speed down a Cannes highway, then spends the rest of the running time crawling devotedly back.
The remaining two films in the Criterion box only sample where Demy went in the years after “Rochefort” before his death in 1988. “Donkey Skin” is a 1970 musical adaptation of the classic Perrault fairy tale, with Deneuve as the princess hiding from her incestuous father (Jean Marais) until she’s rescued by a rebellious prince (Jacques Perrin). It’s a lavishly produced, sneakily subversive number that apparently has left deep psychic marks on generations of French girls, some of whom happily testify in the accompanying featurette. “Donkey Skin” has dated, though, and its visual sensibility is now a souvenir of early-’70s kitsch, equally mesmerizing and appalling.
1982’s “Une Chambre en Ville” — “A Room in Town” — is the late-period revelation of this collection, an unrestrained naturalist operetta set during the labor wars of 1950s Nantes that Demy witnessed as a young man. Dominique Sanda runs around nude under a fur coat as an unhappy wife who starts a doomed affair with dockworker Richard Berri. Every bit of dialogue is sung, no matter how banal, and as the plot ascends to the grand absurdity of melodrama, you may find yourself wondering: Who else had the nerve to go this far out on the limb? What other director fused realism and artifice, the New Wave and the Old Guard in such evocative, provocative fashion?
Indeed, the Criterion package only whets one’s appetite for the rest of Demy’s filmography: His lone American film, 1969’s “Model Shop” (which almost starred a very young Harrison Ford!); the baroque fairy-tale film “The Pied Piper” (1972), featuring the folk singer Donovan in the title role; 1985’s much-maligned “Parking,” which sets the Orpheus legend to a Legrand score and puts the door to hell in an urban parking garage; 1988’s “Three Seats for the 26th,” featuring French film legend Yves Montand in his penultimate role. Some of us would be happy to own a box set called “The Un-Essential Jacques Demy.”
As for “The Essential Jacques Demy,” it owes much to the director’s widow, Agnes Varda, herself a filmmaker of world renown. Varda has overseen the restorations of her husband’s work, appears in many of the box set’s featurettes along with designers, cameramen, producers, and actors, and directed two documentaries, 1993’s “ ‘The Young Girls’ Turns 25” and 1995’s “The World of Jacques Demy,” both included herein.
More critically, she and the Criterion set’s producer, Kate Elmore, have re-created Demy’s universe in a box. It’s a place where Hollywood meets France in ways no one else quite conceived, where characters recur from film to film, where Lola is always searching for that elusive happiness even as the lovers in “Rochefort” find each other and the lovers of “Cherbourg” drift apart. It’s where enlightened provincialism sees the world afresh, as both the dream and what you’re left with when you wake from the dream. Most artists tend to assume one follows the other; it was Demy’s crazy notion to let them happen simultaneously, enchantment and disenchantment rolling forward together. No wonder it has taken decades for the rest of us to catch up.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.