(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)
About six years ago, I wrote here about the French director Jacques Demy, just before the Cinematheque Ontario held a season of his films. They had another one last year, and it actually lured me back to the Cinematheque after several years away (due to perpetual scheduling problems and the considerable consolation of a pretty good DVD collection). In particular, I couldn’t pass up his last film Trois places pour le 26, which I’d never had any opportunity to see before, nor the chance to revisit his version of The Pied Piper (with Jack Wild and John Hurt!), which I recall used to play sometimes on morning TV when I was a kid in Britain, but is never seen now.
The most astonishing thing about the Cinematheque season though was the omission of three of Demy’s films (there are only twelve full-length works in all, plus one made for TV): Lady Oscar, Une chambre en ville and Parking. I only say “astonishing” because the Cinematheque has regularly performed miracles in finding films that virtually all official sources list as inaccessible. The missing Demy movies aren’t that old – they date back to 1979, 1982 and 1985 respectively – but it’s as if they’ve been swallowed up.
I’ve only seen glimpses of them, in the 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy (made by Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda). Une chambre en ville (a musical set against 1950’s labour strife, featuring Michel Piccoli cutting his own throat in mid-song) looks fascinating. Admittedly, Lady Oscar and Parking look dull and (sad to say) awful respectively, but what good is the age of information and digital transmission if not to facilitate our judging such things for ourselves?
I’ve come to love Demy’s films more and more during these six years. And like Orson Welles, the gaps in the available record come more and more to be part of his identity. Five years ago I quoted David Thomson as follows: “(Demy) does not seem quite possible. Did he really live? Have those wistful, gentle and melodic films been made? Or is he only an ideal director one has dreamed…It may be more comfortable in this age of dread-ridden movies to believe Demy never existed.”
It’s an alluring quotation, if you stop (as the Cinematheque did five years ago) in the early 70’s. To that point, Demy’s career indeed consists mostly of some of the loveliest movies ever made. His first two films, Lola and Bay Of Angels, both filmed in pristine black and white and drawing on the magnetism of Anouk Aimee and Jeanne Moreau respectively, are still as evocative as ever, and then came the preeminent The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One of my saddest filmic memories is seeing that film at the Carlton during its re-release more than a decade ago, and being stuck behind a group of women who laughed condescendingly through the whole thing. But the memory’s silver lining is that it confirms the project’s audacity, and Demy’s immense skill in rendering it (if sadly not to all of us) so natural. His notion that subjects like the Algerian war (a huge subject in 1964 France of course) and unmarried pregnancy could possibly be addressed – and seriously - through a musical seems no less visionary now, and the film’s craft remains sublime in every way.
Undemanding and Lollipop
After that, with Catherine Deneuve again, he made The Young Girls Of Rochefort, a more conventional musical but almost as successful, flooding the screen with colour and dance and wonderfully conceived interactions, and with Gene Kelly! At this point I should acknowledge that “more conventional” is a relative term in Demy’s case. Even the brightest of the films feature murder, incest, whoring, all kinds of sexuality (not to mention, in his least successful film from those I’ve seen, a pregnant man). Thomson, I now think, places too great a gap between Demy and today’s “dread-ridden” movies, for it’s clear how easily Demy could be drawn into a darker vein. The Pied Piper, for example, is far more rigorous than most fairy tales would be in depicting the horrors of the plague.
Continuing through the chronology, Demy went to Hollywood to make The Model Shop, intending to cast the unknown Harrison Ford but ending up with 2001’s Gary Lockwood. It’s a fascinating, melancholy film, but didn’t do well. Demy returned to France to make Donkey Skin - a rapturous fairy tale, but with a clear sense of gathering disillusionment. The Pied Piper and The Slightly Pregnant Man followed: all the films he made to this point are either available on DVD or (in the case of The Model Shop) turn up quite often on cable. Six years followed before Lady Oscar and that final heavily hit-and-miss decade (he died in 1990).
An article on Demy on the Senses of Cinema website cites Jean-Luc Godard’s assessment of him as juvenile and passé and (re the Hollywood episode) a tragic sell-out, states that his films may appear “undemanding and lollipop” and appears to share a view that the work has “aged poorly.” The article concludes, seemingly rather reluctantly, that he nevertheless belongs among the auteurs if only for his “consistency of vision.” But actually it’s their very inconsistency in large part that renders his work, and the man himself, so fascinating. The beauty of Umbrellas of Cherbourg only becomes more cherishable for its originator’s apparent doubts, preoccupations and bad luck.
Glimpses and Guesswork
Agnes Varda, who also made the part-documentary/part-reenacted Jacquot du Nantes about Demy, must know his soul better than anyone. They were married for some 30 years, working in close proximity to each other, and raising two children. The World of Jacques Demy basically reinforced the Demy of that Thomson quote, presenting his films out of order as if to fuzzy the sense of his downward trajectory. Varda also didn’t mention there that (at least according again to Senses of Cinema) that they broke up for a year or two in the early 80’s. Clearly, her sense of how to tell his story evolved, for in last year’s documentary The Beaches of Agnes she reported for the first time that he died of AIDS, although again without joining the dots further.
It all leaves me far more preoccupied with Jacques Demy than with many directors I know to be objectively even greater. His films are immensely worth fighting for, but I’m not sure we have the story that best makes sense of them. Most of all, until we’re able to see those missing works, we’re relying too much on glimpses and guesswork. But in the meantime, the earlier films’ pleasures are undiminished. Seek them out, and love them, but be aware that yes, he did live, and not undemandingly, not like a lollipop.
(January 2012 update - thanks to the Internet, I've now seen Une chambre en ville (magnificent!) and Lady Oscar (less so). Still waiting to see Parking)