PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

'The Essential Jacques Demy' Captures the Director's Breezy, Bluesy World

The Essential Jacques Demy provides an insightful look inside an auteur who may finally be getting the recognition he deserves.


Une Chambre en Ville

Director: Jacques Demy
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Various
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2014-07-22

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.

Lead Image: Catherine Deneuve in Donkey Skin

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.