(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)
I was born in 1966, which is old enough to have seen several major changes of the seasons in cinema. When I became seriously interested in film, around 1982, I remember it causing me far more depression than joy. There were only four TV stations in the UK at the time, and foreign films weren’t shown more than once or twice a week. Adult American films were generally cut ( I remember a minor cause celebre involving the excision of the scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson’s nose gets knifed). Video wasn’t yet established – much less DVD. Although the big cities had art cinemas that showed some older films in repertory, I didn’t live close to any of them. In other words, I couldn’t even imagine how I’d ever get to see most of the pictures I was reading about. I remember Bunuel’s Belle de Jour was on TV and I missed it. I was completely miserable, thinking I might have missed my one chance at it.
Last of the old-timers
Now, of course, much of cinema is gloriously accessible. I doubt if there’s a big-studio release of the last 30 years that would be seriously hard to see. Foreign films are a little different, but when HMV has two Hou Hsiao-Hsien pictures in its DVD section (as they did last time I looked) you suspect you’ve reached the promised land. Once video took off, I started to fill the holes in my viewing resume at lightning speed. And over the past eight years, the Cinematheque Ontario has been valuable in plugging many of the holes that remained. There’s barely a significant director now whose major works I haven’t seen (often twice or more, which is frequently a necessity) – and I’ve seen many of the minor works too.
But that took a huge investment of time. Through most of the 80s I watched far more than one film a day. One year I averaged two a day. Even now, with a demanding full time job and a wife and a dog and all sorts of other things going on, I come close to averaging a movie a day over the course of the year. But for anyone starting out now, that would never be a fast enough pace to conquer the back catalogue. You’d have to watch two movies a day in perpetuity, and that’s just too much to sustain a balanced life. So I don’t think it can be done any more. I think I’m just about the last of the old-time cineastes. Maybe I should leave my body to science.
Even at the age of 36, hoping not to be at the halfway mark yet, I’m beginning to resign myself to the idea that I may never see some of the films that evade me. A few months ago, the Cinematheque announced a forthcoming season of Jacques Demy films, and I was extremely excited. Demy is best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, although in the 60s he made several other films almost as beguiling. The films he made after the early 70s are all generally unknown, and I’ve never seen any of them. So I imagined the Cinematheque would remedy this. But no, because once the details were announced, it turned out to be a “mini-retrospective of his most important films,” including nothing since the early 70s.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Internet Movie Database allows registered users to grade films on a scale of one to ten, and this provides an interesting gauge of a film’s relative visibility. It tells us that Demy’s later films can be found, but barely. Trois places pour le 26 has 23 votes. Une chamber en ville has 25 votes. Parking has less than the minimum required 5 votes. Compare this to Attack of the Clones, which already has 18,471 votes. Still, if a film has any votes at all, it’s out there somewhere. Samuel Fuller’s Street of no Return has only 19 votes, but I’m one of them.
It’s good to have something to aim for. In the meantime, I’ll make do with going to the Cinematheque to see Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Model Shop again. The only reason I leave out The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that I have that one on DVD. If you haven’t seen it, it shouldn’t be missed – even if you’re not concerned about charting the highlights of cinema history.
The film is a musical in which every word is sung. It’s set in a small town, and begins with a torrent of enthusiasm as a young mechanic celebrates a date with his girlfriend. She lives with her mother, who owns a struggling umbrella store. The boy gets sent off to war, and the girl realizes she’s pregnant. The mother pushes her toward a jewelry salesman who’s fallen in love with her.
Cherbourg has some of the finest and most sustained surface pleasures of any film. In the restored DVD, the colour design is breathtaking. The music is beautiful without ever being twee, and the film has a constant grace and delicacy. But it’s much more than pristine ornamentation. Demy roots the film squarely in blue-collar concerns and aspirations and regrets. In recent years it’s been more common to marshal the musical form for downbeat or dark material, but this usually involves some necessary sacrifice of the genre’s inherent pleasure. Demy’s film still represents the finest attempt to broaden its scope and depth without a corresponding loss.
Did he exist?
For a film that already attempts so much, it takes substantial structural risks. The boy disappears from the film for a long time; then he returns and the girl disappears for as long. The film builds up to events – like her telling the salesman she’s pregnant – and then dispatches them literally on a single beat. It ends on a note of perfectly judged mixed emotions. It varies its tone with remarkable ease, while always seeming wiser about the demands of real life than any 33-year old director should be.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t the film of a great contemplative artist. Although hindsight helps, it’s not particularly surprising that Demy couldn’t build on it. Not for the first time, critic David Thomson may have put it best: “(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.”
Maybe Demy even stopped believing it himself. Maybe the Cinematheque is merely carrying out a kindness in keeping his later work, made in that dread-ridden age, away from us. For most viewers, it will be more than sufficient to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and a couple more of Demy’s earlier films. But if you belong to the vanishing breed, that leaves a further journey ahead.
(PS Six years later, having seen more of Demy’s movies, I wrote about him again)