Friday, March 6, 2015

The Essential Jacques Demy

Demy, Deneuve, Dorleac on the set of The Young Girls of Rochefort

THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY (Many films by Jacques Demy)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date July 22, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

Jacques Demy is mostly known in America for his wildly popular musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and its less commercially successful but still beloved sequel-in-spirit “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967). Close identification with two accessible films in a populist genre has, in an odd way, complicated Demy's legacy. Would a true French New Wave director spin such candy-colored confections? If Demy wanted admission to the politically-charged Left Bank Group (along with his wife, the brilliant director Agnès Varda), shouldn't he ditch the dancing and get didactic?

Demy has not exactly been forgotten since his death in 1990; the tireless and passionate advocacy of Agnès Varda has assured that will never happen. But being the square peg in every film movement into which he was awkwardly fit (if, for no other reason, than by time and geography) has often consigned him to sidebar status in film surveys; we praise filmmakers for being unique voices, but in what context do you write or teach about the lone wolves?

The Cherbourg-Rochefort nexus so dominates the discussion that it's easy to overlook the fact that Demy was not introduced to the world as the twirler of pastel-hued parapluies. Demy's first two feature films are sober (though not uniformly somber) black-and-white studies of the ravages of gambling, though in very different forms. 

Anouk Aimee in Lola
In “Lola” (1961) the characters proudly wear the scars wrought by first love. None have recovered from its wounds and none particularly want to as they cling to the flimsy hope that they'll experience that addictive endorphin rush once again; both the cruelest and sweetest thing about Demy's fantasy world is that it just might happen. Twenty-something Roland (Marc Michel) pines for the lost love of his youth whom he just happens to run into moments after mentioning her name. His childhood sweetheart Cecile has turned into the very grownup cabaret dancer Lola (Anouk Aimée) and she also longs for the love of her youth; unfortunately that obscure object of desire is not Roland, but a sailor who abandoned ship once Cecile/Lola made the mistake of getting pregnant. The sailor has been gone for years with nary a letter sent, but Lola still believes he will come back one day. Damn the odds, the payoff is too big to abandon the wager now. Roland's fantasy has her own fantasy, and whatever reality he can offer her will never suffice.

“Lola” is set in the port city of Nantes, Demy's childhood hometown, and as with many of his films the city serves as a major supporting character. The various players crisscross its roads and its intimate outdoor shopping malls, meeting in a series of carefully calculated coincidences. At every point in town, first love claims many victims. In one of the most heartfelt sequences, an American sailor who has been (hopelessly) wooing Lola takes a budding young girl (also named Cecile) about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday to the town fair; a modest and innocent gesture of kindness by him, but a moment that will define the girl's entire life and provide a crystalline memory to which no other man will ever measure up. A surprise happy ending provides a Rorschach blot for both romantics and cynics who will either accept it at face value or suspect that tragedy must lurk around the next turn; fast forward to Demy's “Model Shop” (1969, not included in this set) to find out if anyone really hit his or her longshot bet.

A blonde Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels

The gambling is more conventional in Demy's second feature “Bay of Angels” (1963). Jean (Claude Mann) is an unassuming young bank clerk whose curiosity is piqued by a co-worker bragging about a big win at the casino. A little luck at the local tables prompts him to hop the train to the Riviera where he encounters the enigmatic Jackie (a platinum blonde Jeanne Moreau), a woman firmly in the grips of her gambling addiction and savoring every minute of the wild ride: “Gambling is my religion!”

“Bay of Angels” is quite obviously patterned after Robert Bresson's brilliant “Pickpocket” (1959). Like many a Bresson model/actor, Jean is tall and lean and usually keeps his emotions tamped down. And as in “Pickpocket,” the lead man is inducted into a shady new world by a companion and meets a woman he sees as potential salvation (though neither Jackie nor Moreau fit the Bresson template) on the road to an ending so abrupt it leaves the viewer shocked.

Any director's sophomore effort would be expected to suffer by such a challenging comparison, but “Bay of Angels” captures the alternating despair and ephemeral joy of the gambler as vividly as any film ever made. Though shooting on the bustling Riviera and in (presumably) equally bustling casinos, cinematographer Jean Rabier's camera hangs so close to the newly-minted couple that they may as well be all alone as they stumble towards damnation.

The pathetic nature of their addiction is underscored by their game of choice: the pointless and tedious game of roulette, the gussied up version of “Pick a Number” from “Vegas Vacation.” Jackie's eyes light up every time the ball begins to spin around the wheel, and she appears equally confident in every hunch no matter how seldom they pay off. Because sometimes, just sometimes, they do, as was also true for the hopeful lovers of “Lola.” And so the film proceeds with sudden big wins followed by the instant hemorrhaging of all gains, then one more big win to prolong the cycle in which Jackie has clearly been trapped for years and which threatens to ensnare Jean alongside her.

I knew nothing of “Bay of Angels” before this set, and I think it's not just Demy's masterpiece, but one of the great French films of the sixties which is pretty high praise. Moreau is magnificent as the desperate, destructive, but undaunted Jackie (a shot of her walking in high heels across a rocky beach sums up her character succinctly) and the seemingly good-natured Jean manifests an unexpected dark side just when you think you have him pegged. It is the ultimate casino movie, in no small part because it makes no effort to glamorize the shabby experience. The film does not take a single false step and if you see no other movie from this set, please make sure you don't miss this one.

This is the point at which the characters in Demy's films begin to sing and, not coincidentally, this is also the point where I must largely recuse myself from the case. I am not entirely hostile to movie musicals, but I have long known that I am allergic to the version of the genre which Demy innovated, the one where the characters sing every line from poetic love songs to mundane exchanges like “Would you like fries with that? Yes, uh no, make it onion rings instead.” I paraphrase, of course.

Deneuve and... who cares, it's Deneuve in Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Many films ask you to buy into a certain brand of artifice, and I know that many, many viewers have happily bought into Demy's all-singing style as both “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” appear on quite a few all-time favorite lists. If you do buy in, each film quickly becomes a hermetic reality that provides a direct access to the characters' emotional state that is difficult to achieve by more conventionally naturalistic means and many have been moved to tears by these tales of loves both lost and achieved.

I wish I could buy in. It seems like so much fun. But I cannot, and believe me I have tried. I just keep waiting for them to stop singing even though I know they won't. Having said that, I am not immune to the considerable charms of both “Cherbourg” and “Rochefort,” chief among them the almost supernaturally flawless visage of a young Catherine Deneuve who would be rocketed to international stardom by her role in “Cherbourg,” a major popular and critical success for Demy. “Rochefort” was not as big of a hit, but it offers its own unique charms, pairing Deneuve with her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac (who died in an auto accident just months after filming) and also features Gene Kelly who helpsto add the dancing part of the equation to the wall-to-wall singing in Demy's first musical. These films are not my cup of tea, but I fully understand why they are so loved. Did I mention the colors? Good grief, the colors are worth the price of admission all by themselves.

Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig in Donkey Skin
That brings us to “Donkey Skin” (1970), which does not feature wall-to-wall singing (though there are plenty of tunes) but does qualify as the rare incest film meant for children. The film is based on a 17th century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, best known to Americans for cultural touchstones like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” “Donkey Skin” is almost entirely unknown in America but remains a staple in France and tells the story of a dying queen who makes the king promise only to remarry a princess more beautiful than her. It turns out the only princess who qualifies is the king's daughter (Deneuve) and so he immediately proposes to her.

You can shake off the ick factor of the premise by realizing the story is told more or less from the free-floating perspective of the little girl who wants to marry daddy and needs to learn why that's not a great idea, but you can also understand why it hasn't gotten quite as much play here as Perrault's other standards. I was not, however, able to get past the design and tone of the film with its neighboring kingdoms filled, respectively, with blue people and red people. Demy borrows heavily from Jean Cocteau (even casting “Beast”ly Jean Marais as the king) but the surrealism that works so beautifully in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Orpheus” feels like forced whimsy here and all in the service of a rather unpleasant story.

I'll be honest. Just about everything in this movie rubbed me the wrong way, including the music, and I found it a challenge to sit through. There are two exceptions though. The great goddess Delphine Seyrig is perfectly cast as the kind but scheming Lilac Fairy. And the title donkey shits out heaps of gold and precious gems, which is pretty cool no matter what you think of the rest of the movie.

Un chambre en ville
The final film in this set is “Un chambre en ville” (1982) in which Demy returns to Nantes and to his all-singing format. I could only make it through twenty minutes, but keep in mind what I've already written. I am not qualified to pass judgment on the movie and won't do so. It was long difficult to find in any format in North America and the new availability of this late-period Demy film has been welcomed enthusiastically by many of his fans.


Video:
The six films in the set are each presented in their original aspect ratios ranging from 1.66:1 to 2.35:1. All of the films have been digitally restored within the past few years at different labs, all with the direct participation of Demy's wife Agnès Varda and their children Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda-Demy. “Lola” is the weakest of the lot with a surprisingly soft image throughout (hardly any grain visible); there is also some digital blur when characters or the camera are in motion. It's not terrible, but it's one of the weaker high-def transfers we've seen from Criterion and I suspect the problems are in the restoration process; the original negative was destroyed in a fire and the restoration had to be conducted from the best print that could be found, no doubt requiring substantial boosting at times.

“Bay of Angels” looks much better with a pleasing grainy image that looks appropriately drab even in the sunniest beach sequences. There's a lot of white in this black-and-white film and that can be hard to deal with in a digital transfer but everything looks pretty strong here.

“Cherbourg” and “Rochefort” were both restored in 2013 and the results are impressive. These are films with bright, saturated colors and they pop here without ever seeming too gaudy. Image detail is sharp and I can't imagine fans will have any complaints here.

“Donkey Skin” doesn't look quite as strong as the previous three films, but the restoration is more than competent with bright colors. Some scenes look surprisingly grimy considering it's a fairy tale adaptation, but Demy was going for a grittier naturalistic look as a counterpoint to the whimsy.

I only sampled twenty minutes of “Une chambre en ville” and noticed no obvious issues with the 2012 restoration. Image quality is sharp. Colors aren't meant to be as bright here and aren't.

This is a dual-format release which includes DVDs along with the Blu-rays. The SD transfers have not been reviewed because I wish both to retain my sanity and to have this review posted before 2015.

Audio:
“Lola” and “Bay of Angels” get LPCM mono tracks. “Cherbourg,” “Rochefort,” and “Donkey Skin” get 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround tracks. “Une chambre” is presented with a 2.0 surround track.

Audio is clean and crisp on all six films. You probably care most about the music in the last four films and as far as I can tell you they all sound rich and vibrant. The great composer Michel Legrand was a close, long-time collaborator with Demy and scored all the films in this set except for “Une chambre” and his work is shown off quite well by these lossless audio tracks. Optional English subtitles support the French audio in all films.

Extras:
Both Criterion and the Varda-Demy family have joined forces to offer a remarkable collection of extras, scattered across the six films in this boxed set.

First, a word about the packaging. Each film is housed in its own keep case and all six cases fit next to the square-bound insert booklet inside the large cardboard case with cover art for the whole “Essential Jacques Demy” set. Since this is a dual-format release, each case contains a single DVD and a single Blu-ray (“Une chambre” has two DVDs along with the single Blu-ray). It's a very handsomely-designed set which you can view in more detail here.

“Lola” includes a brief interview with actress Anouk Aimée (3 min.) which combines interviews conducted by Agnès Varda in 1995 and 2012. Varda is also interviewed (2008, 3 min.) about writing the lyrics for Lola's song. Like most discs in this set, we also get a Restoration Demonstration (10 min.) which details the considerable problems involved in restoring “Lola,” the negative of which was lost in a fire. The disc also includes a Trailer (2 min.) which references the restoration as much as the film.

Of greater interest, however, are the four short films by Demy included on this first disc. “Les horizons morts” (1951, 8 min.) stars Demy in a Cocteau-infused silent film (with music) about a man who mopes in his lonely room while thinking back to a lost love. “Le sabotier du Vale de Loire” (1956, 23 min.) is a splendid poetic documentary about an aging clog maker in the Loire Valley. It details his work, but also devotes plenty of time (via narration) to his ongoing love for his wife. “Ars” (1959, 17 min.) is a Bresson-influenced documentary about Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, a stern 19th century French parish priest in the small town of Ars. I loved it, but many will find it dry. “La luxure” (1962, 15 min.) is Demy's segment from the 1962 omnibus film “The Seven Deadly Sins” and is the least compelling of the shorts, but still of interest.

Unfortunately, “Bay of Angels” is pretty sparse on extras, a shame for the standout film in the set. We get an on-set interview with Jeanne Moreau (1962, 14 min.), conducted for the French television show “Cinépanorama” and an informative interview with writer Marie Colmant (2013, 10 min.) who discusses Demy's fondness for outcast characters. We also get another Restoration Demonstration (5 min.) and a Trailer (1 min.)

The extras on “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” kick off with “Once Upon a Time... The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary (54 min.) by Marie Genin and Serge July which includes archival interviews with Demy and new interviews with Catherine Deneuve, Michel Legrand, Agnès Varda, and others.

A substantial interview with film scholar Rodney Hill (2014, 23 min.) addresses the difficulty in categorizing Demy's work (New Wave, Left Bank, Tradition of Quality?) and provides more details about the production of some of his films, with a focus on “Cherbourg” of course. An excerpt from a 1964 episode of “Cinépanorama” (11 min.) features an interview with collaborators Demy and composer Michel Legrand. The disc also includes audio extracts from an appearance by Legrand at the National Film Theatre in London (1991, 27 min.) and an appearance by Deneuve at the same location (1983, 11 min.) And we get another Restoration Demonstration (6 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

“The Young Girls of Rochefort” is accompanied by an excerpt from a 1966 episode of the French TV show “Cinéma” (11 min.) with another interview with Demy and Legrand, as well as the second part of a six part 1966 “Behind-the-Scenes” series shot by André Delvaux about the production of “Rochefort.” Just this installation runs 35 minutes so the overall project must have been quite ambitious. We also get a 2013 interview (26 min.) with film scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau who worked on many of Demy's films and was a close friend of the director. No Restoration Demonstration this time, but there is a Trailer (2 min.)

The best feature on the disc, however, is the documentary “The Young Girls Turns 25” (1993, 67 min.) directed by the great documentarian Agnès Varda who returns to Rochefort, a town whose identity is still closely tied in with the film. The feature includes interviews with Deneuve (who also returns to Rochefort for the anniversary) and the many townsfolk who fondly remember (and probably misremember) their involvement with the production. This is a fantastic documentary.

“Donkey Skin” includes an excerpt from the French TV show “Pour le cinéma” (1970, 12 min.) which mixes interviews with Demy, Deneuve, and actors Jean Marais and Jacques Perrin. “Donkey Skin Illustrated” presents images from various print versions of the Perrault fairy tale and then provides narration over the pictures to tell the story. It's a neat feature though the repetition of some audio from the film gets irritating. “Donkey Skin and the Thinkers” is a 2008 interview with film critic Camille Taboulay, psychoanalysts Lucille Durrmeyer and Jean-Claude Polack, and 17th century literature specialist Liliane Picciola. This feature runs 17 minutes and if you make it all the way through, I think you win a T-shirt or something. “Jacques Demy at the AFI” is a lengthy audio excerpt from a 1971 appearance at the AFI (42 min.)

And if you think there have been a lot of extras so far, Criterion has saved some of the heftiest ones for the final volume which explains why “Une chambre en ville” is the only title that requires two DVDs along with the single Blu-ray. “Jacques Demy from A to Z” (2014, 61 min.) is a tremendous visual essay by James Quandt, perhaps my favorite working critic today. As the title suggests, this feature is quite ambitious and wide-ranging, proposing 26 separate topics for discussion. Perhaps the conceit requires a bit of a stretch (half the French directors who ever lived are cited as influences on Demy) but this visual essay is an invaluable and riveting companion to the films in this set.

“The World of Jacques Demy” (1995, 91 min.) is another documentary by Agnès Varda which addresses both the personal and professional and includes many interviews with Demy's collaborators over the years. And it is, of course, excellent. Because it's made by Varda.

The final disc also includes a Q&A session with Demy from the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland (1987, 16 min.), another Restoration Demonstration (6 min.) and a Trailer (2 min.)

In case the discs don't provide enough supplemental material, the 68-page square-bound insert booklet includes an essay on each of the films written, in order, by Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne E. Duggan, and Geoff Andrew. A seventh essay by Jean-Pierre Berthomé speaks more generally about Demy's relationship to his hometown of Nantes.

But aside from all of that, this set is pretty bare bones.

Set Value:
Some might argue that “Model Shop” needs to be included in any Jacques Demy set labeled as “Essential” but let's not quibble with the voluminous material included here. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the musicals, but I have confidence that most of you will be. I would consider this set a towering triumph if for no other reason than the inclusion of “Bay of Angels,” a film that absolutely blew me away. I will never forget it. “Lola” is pretty damn good as well. So if you only think of Demy as the musical guy this set should cure you. This set is Criterion's most ambitious undertaking since “Zatoichi” and it more than delivers the goods.

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