The first word that comes to mind when describing the incredibly singular work of French director Jacques Demy is “underrated”. A substantial portion of this contextual: Demy came of age as a director in the whirlwind of the French new wave era of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Rivette. The era, exciting and daring in its total disapproval of tradition, doesn’t quite house Demy’s style, and as a result his work was long undervalued in comparison to the other great work of his peers and in scheme of cinephilia at large. This is a shame, since he, as much as they, had an incredibly signature style, perhaps even moreso than Godard, the most internationally recognizable figure of the period.
It goes without saying that Demy likes musicals. It’s perhaps his love of this particularly American genre that distinguishes him so clearly from his French counterparts, directors who sought to break the conventions that Hollywood offered by way of the star system and the recognisability of the genres it used as their lifelines. In contrast with directors like Godard, Demy chose instead to work within and to remodel those familiar frameworks as his own, therein creating something entirely unique and his own.
Criterion’s newly released The Essential Jacques Demy box set attempts to situate the director into the public consciousness as the vital voice in international cinema that he has always been but not always been recognized as. The box set’s collection of six features, rare early short films, gorgeous restorations, essays, documentaries by his widow, fellow filmmaking pioneer Agnès Varda, and interviews with some of the stars whose careers he helped launch all provide the tip of the iceberg to understanding Demy’s beautifully sad universe. Within the collection’s span of 21 years, from his first feature, Lola (1961), to his penultimate Une Chambre en Ville (1982), the director’s best work can be seen. (Model Shop, a quasi sequel to Lola, is arguably among his best, but it is not included here.)
Let’s backtrack just a little: Demy’s first film, the sensational Lola, and his second, the criminally underrated and perhaps best in his catalogue, Bay of Angels, present themselves as New Wave-adjacent, at least in comparison to his work that would soon follow. In some ways they’re the biggest anomalies in his body of work, as they refrain, at least in Lola due to financial constraints, from the use of music as a narrative device. Almost all of his films to follow would adhere to the programmatic and strict definition of the musical genre wherein all dialogue is sung. This was at times grating and distancing, but when it worked it was sublime and unlike anything else cinema had to offer.
Both Demy’s first two features utilize zestful female protagonists with a melancholic background, which are character traits that would remain throughout the heroines of Demy’s career. Lola launched Anouk Aimée into the world in an iconic role that combined the rare beauty of Aimée with the exuberant lyricism of Demy’s world. Similarly, Bay of Angels took the red-hot Jeanne Moreau (a year after Truffaut’s Jules and Jim) and utilized her slightly androgynous playfulness into the role of a detached gambling addict. The films are perhaps Demy’s only straight character dramas, and they work just as well, if not better, than his subsequent musical offerings.
It’s important to note the ostensibly dissonant features of those female actors because the environments that Demy created necessitated multifaceted performers and visuals. His breakthrough, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is notable for several reasons: Catherine Deneuve, heretofore a relatively unknown quantity, became a superstar overnight thanks to her delicate performance as a sad umbrella shopgirl, and Demy’s signature cinematic attributes, Technicolor saturation and unwavering musical narratives, were brought to the forefront for the first time. The Young Girls of Rochefort, his Cherbourg follow-up, is generally considered to be a genial, if less successful, play on the same themes. This time, however, Demy got to work with Fred Astaire, using his buoyancy and flighty feet to add just a little more pep to an already peppy picture (with a strange serial killer subplot that’s always been inexplicable more than anything else).
These sorts of box sets are good for establishing patterns and themes, both narrative and stylistic, and in that regard it’s easy to see that Demy’s work borrows from Hollywood but reflects the director’s omnipresent sadness. The characters in his films, whether Lola in her search for love, Moreau in Jackie’s quest for sustainable normalcy, or Deneuve’s wanderlust in both Cherbourg and Rochefort, are all looking for something that seems just out of their grasp. This attributes to the characters’ relatability, which is part of what makes the usage of music, in the latter two films as well as in Une Chambre in Ville, Demy’s late-period baroque chamberpiece, such an attractive aspect of the work; the sing-songy nature of the narrative provides an extra layer to the hope the characters possess.
And then there’s Donkey Skin, a film worth seeing solely for its high ratio of bizarre moments. Based on a fairytale with incest as its core theme, the film features some of the most insanely inauthentic set pieces and costumes, replete with Deneuve literally wearing a donkey skin for the majority of the time while fending off the gross advances of her father. It’s essential to this set because it shows that Demy did what he wanted, even if it wasn’t popular or in fashion. That said, a better inclusion in this collection would be Model Shop, another non-musical narrative, and one with a rare male protagonist for counterpoint.
Like any Criterion set, the supplements are the true delight here. Featuring a booklet containing essays on each of the films, as well as Demy’s usage of the most consistent character in his films, the Nantes backdrop, The Essential Jacques Demy provides an insightful look inside an auteur who may finally be getting the recognition he deserves.