the films of jacques demy
Imagine the love story of a shop girl and garage mechanic, where every line of dialogue forms a working-class opera, every frame a coordinated fairer reality of shape and colour, and you may have a hint of the brazen originality in 1964 of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, France’s first full-colour musical. Among the film-makers of the ‘French New Wave’, director Jacques Demy’s musicals reveal an innovator who enlarged on the new possibilities of cinema to bring important moving themes to life.
Notable for their exuberant use of colour, Demy and set designer Bernard Evein repainted whole real sections of the town of Cherbourg. The effect in film is one of a heightened sense of reality, where song and the movement of characters form controlled elements of a unifying theme. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) enlarged this visual control to a grand scale; 40,000 square metres of the city’s facades were enlivened and patterned from director Demy’s guiding imagination.
Despite early ’60’s filmmaking moving only in its first stages toward a rougher naturalist style, many critics had already dismissed musicals and their heightened reality from any ability to represent serious themes. A 1964 Times review labelled Umbrellas a “cinematic confection”, indulging “a flow of romantic contrivance and sheer decorative artifice…so clearly ingenuous and old-fashioned that it wouldn’t get beyond a reader in Hollywood”.
Despite this contemporary cynicism, Demy’s use of art is in fact truly avante-garde. If the benevolent atmosphere of his films’ witty dialgoue, musical scores by Michel LeGrand, and colour schemes are “lighter than air“, they also hint at weightier issues beneath the surface. The Young Girls of Rochefort show young lovers walking the street, crossed in the foreground by a long line of marching soldiers. It is a motif that echoes the fate of Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), whose romance with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is cut short in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by being drafted to war.
Demy’s films also turn to critique seriously the stultifying conventions of ‘bourgoise’ society, especially as symbolised by traditional marriage. The riotous colours that backdrop Genevieve’s young love for Guy drain to pastels as they separate in a station cafe. Scenes successively shed their colour and emotional vibrancy. As she strikes a ‘mature’ bargain to marry the middle-class Roland, she covers her coloured dress in white; he in turn wears a beige suit. In the final exchange between her and Guy, Genevieve arrives in Roland’s black car which is blanketed under a covering of white snow. Her young daughter, contrasted in red, is seen playfully clearing this white from the surface beneath. Demy’s stylistic use of colour should therefore be as much enjoyed for its splendour and “dogged unity“, as also viewed seriously for these powerful devices. They effectively dramatise important themes like truth, innocence and the compromises society impose on the individual. These films ‘seduce’ us to understanding rather than by instruction.
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests Demy’s sexuality may have heightened his awareness of how society’s ‘roles’ fetter the innocent passions of youth, the banal gestures to ordinary life existing side-by-side against characters’ passionate inner world of song and ideal. Characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort are almost all separated from love by small barriers. There is Maxence, the soldier who paints artworks in secret. He keeps unknowingly missing Delphine, his ‘feminine ideal’ in near-coincidences, clashing despair with optimism, song with gesture.
Demy’s films strain to break free from their confines. Characters break film convention and at times sing directly to the camera until ‘real life’ intrudes. In Lola (1961) a musical number is broken off with an abrupt, “Oh – what time is it? What is the time?” before Lola rushes to an appointment.
Another of Demy’s innovations are the way characters extend out from the confines of the plot, resurfacing and linking to his other films. Character ‘Roland Cassard’ appears as a young man in Lola and as a middle-aged businessman in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel Legrand’s score from Lola is also reprised and given lyrics in this later film. Lola‘s title character reappears in Model Shop (1969) and is also spoken about by characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Even in his modernist fairytale Donkey Skin (1970) the love-struck prince is heard scatting “lola-lola” at the end of a song-line. These crossings serve no major plot points, but Demy’s modern linking of fictions and the reality between them are as much a personal exuberance as perhaps an attempt to embed his film career within the stylized, benevolent universe of his own creation. As innovation, it appears as if he’s holding a vision alive for an audience both before and beyond the closed form of any single film. Here too, real world and brilliantly-styled imagination mix together.
Demy’s bright film imagery blazes in memory long after the pleasures of inhabiting his world in film, infecting our everyday vision with optimism. Many contemporary critics continue to rail against the overtly stylized film-making of auteurs like Baz Luhrmann, and before him, cinematic trailblazers like Jacques Demy. Yet the gritty realism of today’s cinema is no longer an innovation; Its own modes and acclaim have become entrenched. Modernity requires something else besides, and in Demy, it was his vision ♦