Jacques Demy (1931 – 1990) dedicated his little-seen Parking to Jean Cocteau, "who loved the words 'Once Upon a Time.’" Of the innumerable filmmakers influenced by Cocteau, his closest follower/disciple may have been Demy who, like Cocteau, sought to transform everyday reality into imaginative magic. In some films, this takes the form of fantastical occurrences but more often it appears as a concatenation of fateful chance encounters or unlikely coincidences that seem to indicate the work of unseen forces.
Demy's other major influence was the Hollywood musical, especially those from MGM's Freed Unit, and most especially the work of Vincente Minnelli. Like Minnelli, Demy delights in presenting precisely and vibrantly designed sets and costumes that form a hermetic world pulsing with music. Minnelli worked as a window dresser, while Demy staged puppet shows as a child; in both cases, these formative experiences led to a later emphasis on the expression of character and emotion through mise-en-scene.
After finishing film school in Paris, Demy began making short films in the mid-1950s and by the end of the decade was living with Agnès Varda; the two married in 1962 and remained so until Demy’s death. This relationship brought Demy into the heart of the so-called “Left Bank Group” (Varda, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker), although some argue that Demy himself cannot be counted a member because his work lacks the formal experimentation and political engagement of the Group’s films. This view underestimates both the innovative force of Demy’s use of music and mise-en-scene as well as the critical nature of the films’ often-noted melancholy.
While love is the constant preoccupation of Demy’s cinema, magic or fate typically intervenes to thwart or to endorse the various couplings. This fatalism is the source of the pervasive melancholy in these films, and it is often associated with politics: the French Revolution, the 1955 shipbuilders strike in Nantes, or the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. More generally, the melancholy often appears as a reaction to the repressive constraints on gender and sexuality. Many of the films, from Model Shop to Parking, feature protagonists challenged by the binaries of male and female, and the vein of homoeroticism in Demy’s work stretches back to Le bel indifferent.
Demy’s career climaxed with the tremendous critical and popular success of his third feature film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This success was never duplicated, and by the mid-1970s, Demy was reliant on funding from television and from abroad. He was nonetheless able to complete three important projects in the 1980s: the long-gestating musical, A Room in Town; the homage to Cocteau and to bisexuality, Parking; and the Yves Montand vehicle Three Seats for the 26th.
Demy died of AIDS in 1990 without ever regaining the success he had enjoyed in the 1960s, but the favorable critical reception of his last films laid the seeds for their subsequent rediscovery. If Demy’s life has a happy ending, it can best be found in Agnès Varda’s loving and tireless efforts to keep his work accessible to the public, in the embrace of Lola and Umbrellas by subsequent generations and in the rising reputation of Bay of Angels, Model Shop and A Room in Town.
This program is presented with assistance from the Institut Français, the Consulate General of France in Boston, and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York.
Special thanks: Fabien Fieschi, Emmanuelle Marchand, Eric Jausseran—the Consulate General of France, Boston; Amélie Garin-Davet—Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Agnès Varda.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Carson Lund and David Pendleton
As an agent of French cultural diplomacy, operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the Institut français today is a unique brand in France and 96 other countries. Outside France, it promotes artists, ideas, works and industries, while facilitating artistic exchanges and cultural dialogues. The Institute français is notably active in the promotion and cultural distribution of French films abroad, through a network of the instituts français and Alliances françaises and over 300 main partners worldwide. Its programmes contribute to the non-commercial distribution of recently produced French films and the presentation of its main figures and younger generation as well as to the promotion of film classics and to the wider dissemination of knowledge about film. The Institut Français also participates in the promotion of world cinema with Fabrique des cinémas du monde during the Cannes Film Festival, the Cinémathèque Afrique and the aid scheme Aide aux cinémas du monde managed jointly with the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée (CNC).
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Marc Michel
France/West Germany 1964, 35mm, color, 92 min. French with English subtitles
Finally realizing his dream of a romantic tale completely saturated in color and song, Demy created his most critically and popularly successful film and propelled Catherine Deneuve into eternal stardom. His oddly radical departure from the New Wave coda—and certainly any particular film genre—featured dialogue entirely sung in a stunning Technicolor wonderland held within the fluid gaze of Jean Rabier’s camera. Meticulously painting with artifice to describe the heart’s depths, Demy initiates his audience into a heightened sensory experience of the unpredictable social and economic compromises and complications tangled up in modern love. As if transmitting on a parallel frequency, his relentless musical style and candy-colored sensibility infuses the melodrama with another layer of emotional communication—enhancing his cinematic palette to illustrate how ordinary life’s simple encounters, connections and dizzying, dramatic crescendos of underlying emotions take on the rich, dreamy uncanniness of the cinema or the fairy tale, and that their separation is perhaps the actual illusion. Print courtesy of Institut Français
Directed by Agnès Varda. With Philippe Maron, Edouard Joubeaud, Laurent Monnier
France 1991, 35mm, b/w & color, 118 min. French with English subtitles
Begun while Jacques Demy was ill and completed after his death, Jacquot de Nantes is Agnès Varda’s valentine to her husband, a tour through his life and work that is at once joyous and elegiac. Using a combination of recreations based on Demy’s memories, on-screen reminiscences and clips from Demy’s films, Varda traces Demy’s evolution from a movie-loving boy in the coastal town of Nantes through his career as an accomplished director of films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola. Interspersed throughout the film are intimate close-ups of Demy’s fragile body, tenderly filmed by Varda in one of her most personal and affecting films.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Anouk Aimée, Gary Lockwood, Alexandra Hay
France/US 1968, 35mm, color, 92 min. In English
Equating the seizure of one’s car with death, Model Shop is the ultimate Los Angeles driving narrative, a film that scales the destiny of a man to the fate of his automobile. George Matthews is a jaded architecture graduate slumming around the city of angels on what will likely be his last tank of gas before a stint in Vietnam, his halfhearted mission being the collection of enough funds to pay off the fast-approaching repossession of his convertible. Demy’s first American effort conjures a rich sense of the Californian social life that his desperate outsider is both repelled by and drawn to, its vision of the city’s “pure poetry” concentrated through a series of driving shots every bit as geographically faithful as those in Vertigo’s San Francisco. Thick with Bach-scored melancholy, Model Shop points forward to the existential gloom of Five Easy Pieces even as it refers back to Demy’s own filmography via the resonant reappearance of Lola’s titular French beauty, now a heartbroken castaway challenging George’s limited perspective. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Francis Huster, Laurent Malet, Keïko Ito
France 1985, DCP, color, 95 min. French with English subtitles
Dedicated to Jean Cocteau “who loved the magic words ‘Once upon a time,” Demy and Michel Legrand reincarnate the legend of Greek myth and Cocteau in the land of 1980’s pop music. Aided by that decade’s adoration of fame, glamour and decadence, Demy places Orpheus center stage where the angelic, gleeful pop star is worshipped by millions. When an accident sends him through the wall of a parking garage and into a bureaucratic underworld ruled by Jean Marais’ Hades, his luck takes a few surreal turns within Demy’s mostly wholesome fantasyland. Despite a few dark notes and a general tone of tenuous temporality, Parking celebrates all aspects of life, love, creativity and even death through a graphic visual sense and Orphée’s strange songs, as well as Demy’s signature optimism and an exuberant embrace of bisexuality as a natural and inclusive expression of love. DCP courtesy of Ciné-Tamaris
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, Delphine Seyrig
France 1970, 35mm, color, 90 min. French with English subtitles
Enchanted since childhood with the fantastic, utopian realms of the fairy tale, Demy finally adapted one of his favorites to the screen. Demy fills Charles Perrault’s classic 17th century tale with sparkling rainbow costumes, set design and effects—playfully reveling in dismantling normalcy through imaginative incongruities and dreamy, childlike logic. Naturally, Catherine Deneuve plays the most beautiful woman in the world whose death leads Jean Marais’ king to select his own stunning daughter—also Deneuve—as his new bride. Another goddess of French cinema, Delphine Seyrig plays the confused princess’ decidedly modern Fairy Godmother who casts a spell so the girl may escape as an ugly beast into Cinderella territory, finally mesmerizing a dreamy prince who glimpses her true beauty. Summoning multiple time periods and Cocteau references, Demy’s funny mix of the plausible and the mundane with the mythical, the magical and the taboo—makes clever, understated room for subversive ideas about wealth and class, domestic and gender roles while directly reflecting cinema’s unique power to freely experiment with alternative realities. Print courtesy of Institut Français
Directed by Agnès Varda
France/Belgium/Spain 1995, DCP, b/w & color, 90 min. French and English with English subtitles
Guided by Agnès Varda through her husband’s life and films a few years after his death in 1990, the “casual stroll” endearingly weaves together film clips, old photographs, rare home movie and behind-the-scenes footage on his film sets, interviews with Demy throughout his career and informal chats with Demy’s children, as well as numerous actors, friends and collaborators such as, Claude Berri, Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimée, Michel Legrand, Michel Piccoli, Danielle Darrieux and Dominique Sanda. In between, excited fans effuse and enlightening episodes surprise, such as footage of Jim Morrison on the set of Donkey Skin and Harrison Ford’s screen test for Model Shop. In the spirit of Demy’s playful optimism, Varda elucidates the passionate path of a filmmaker determined to march to his own unique tune, charming legions of followers off into dreamlands unknown. Print courtesy of Janus Films
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Alan Scott
France/Italy 1961, 35mm, b/w, 88 min. French and English with English subtitles
Demy burst out of the gate with this effusive, feather-light portrait of old France receding in the rear view to be replaced by a young, liberated postwar culture. With the sexual revolution feeling very much on the horizon, Lola bounces between intertwining characters in Demy’s hometown of Nantes, their fleeting connections forming a fluid tapestry of love given and denied, dreams fulfilled and sacrificed. At the film’s center is the relationship between a shambolic loner and the charismatic cabaret dancer—the non-stop energy source that is Anouk Aimée—for whom he pines. Shot monochromatically by Raoul Coutard on anamorphic lenses during the rising days of his New Wave reputation, Demy’s film presents a world so lively and overgrown with cinematic references (an opening credit offers Max Ophüls as a touch point) that it literally appears to bulge outside the spatial limitations of the frame—a fitting analogue to the script’s optimistic sense of limitless possibilities, renewed by each dramatic cut and sweeping camera move.
This program brings together four short projects from the early years of Demy’s filmmaking career.
France 1955, 35mm, b/w, 23 min. French with English subtitles
Le sabotier du Val de Loire is the documentary portrait of an aging cobbler and his wife.
With Jeanne Allard, Angela Bellini, Jacques Demy
France 1957, 35mm, color, 23 min. French with English subtitles
Demy’s first adaptation of Cocteau is a short play about a woman driven to desperation by the nonchalance of her lover.
France 1959, 35mm, b/w, 17 min. French with English subtitles
Ars is the most direct expression of Demy’s fascination with the mysteries of faith (and therefore with the films of Robert Bresson) in the form of a biographical sketch of 19th-century priest Jean Vianney.
With Micheline Presle, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Laurent Terzieff
France 1961, 35mm, b/w, 14 min. French with English subtitles
Lust is Demy’s contribution to the French omnibus film The Seven Deadly Sins; despite the episode’s suggestive title, Demy approaches his subject playfully, imagining a conversation between two fictional artists about a childhood confusion between luxure (French for the sin of lust) and luxe (luxury).
Directed by Jacques Demy. With With Yves Montand, Mathilda May, Françoise Fabian
France 1988, DCP, color, 106 min. French and English with English subtitles
With its lengthy scenes of theater rehearsal that start to look indistinguishable from the vibrant world off stage, Three Seats for the 26th plays like a spiritual precursor to the late-career work of Alain Resnais. Demy’s last entry into his beloved musical genre treats the boundary between life and theater as a flimsy one, perhaps even suggesting dramatic performance to be closer to life because of its distillation of unspoken truths present in daily existence. Here, the defining withheld truth has to do with the nature of the relationship between Yves Montand (playing himself), one of his young female admirers, and her mother, which gradually comes into focus as the film nears its startling conclusion. Demy’s use of the camera as an expressionistic compass to his character’s core passions had long since developed into a fully formed trademark at this late stage of his career, and Three Seats offers ample evidence of this cinematographic mastery even as the cheery radiance of the images is called into question by the problematic implications of the narrative.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Jeanne Moreau, Claude Mann, Paul Guers
France 1963, 35mm, b/w, 82 min. French with English subtitles
Demy’s second feature film is mostly contained within the closed world of the casino, through which Claude Mann’s disillusioned bank clerk follows Jeanne Moreau’s gambling demimondaine. Post-Jules et Jim and La Notte, Moreau glides through this parallel dimension immortal and evanescent, as suspended in cinematic time as Demy’s minimalistic black-and-white widescreen. The cool composition mimics the escapist architecture of the casino—a place of suspended reality with its own rules and morals and dramatic rhythm checked by Michel Legrand’s repeating musical refrain, which would seem hopelessly romantic in any other film. Here, it plays with the intersections of “real” drama and the kind contrived within the controlled space of the casino or the cinema. The couple’s undefined relationship follows the unpredictable rises and falls of perpetually risking it all, guided by passing whims or mystical signs, living moment to moment on a playing field continually leveled by the extremes of luxury and poverty. Expressing both the disappointment and the thrill of modern living with its arbitrary set of socioeconomic restrictions, this was the last film Demy made which still operated within the naturalistic restraints of the nouvelle vague, surprising even that wave with its capricious ending—as carefree and unpredictable as a spin of the roulette wheel.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Dominique Sanda, Danièle Delorme, Tonie Marshall
France 1980, 16mm, color, 84 min. In French with English subtitles
Colette’s La naissance du jour (known as Break of Day in English) is an autobiographical novel about a woman in her fifties who wrestles with her decision to take a younger lover as she attempts to settle into middle age. The film adaptation was made for television during the period when Demy was reliant on commissioned projects, unable to finance his own scripts. The renunciation of love is a theme that resounds throughout Demy’s oeuvre and here finds moving expression. The film was shot at Colette’s house in Saint-Tropez, and the setting provides a perfect canvas for Demy’s typically careful and inspired mise-en-scene, including the patterned wallpaper that was such an important element of his visual style.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Donovan, Jack Wild, Donald Pleasence
UK/US 1972, DCP, color, 91 min
Somewhat of a return to the fairy tale land of Donkey Skin, Demy’s subsequent film is likewise filled with song and childlike magic, yet darkness prevails. British pop star Donovan makes his only fiction film appearance as the title character who charms all the animals and children of the somber-toned, medieval hamlet, yet cannot change the corrupt hearts of the ruling class, the church or even the frightened townspeople. Introducing the black plague into the centuries’ old story, Demy also paints grotesque, sinister portraits of Klan-like Catholic priests and monstrous leaders who terrorize the carefree, joyful bohemians and artists—even when they are of obviously valuable service. His insertion of a subversive alchemist who is Jewish conjures all kinds of modern-day plagues and persecutions which flourish due to fear, prejudice and greed.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Jacques Perrin
France 1967, 35mm, color, 126 min. French and English with English subtitles
A follow-up to the grand success of Demy’s first musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort unfurls an unabashedly romantic bouquet of song and dance upon a flowing field of pastel. Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac star as musical twins searching for love and success just as a fair comes to town and a medley of strangers convenes in the charming port town. With a tip of his chapeau to the golden era of the Hollywood musical—including the very American presence of Gene Kelly and West Side Story’s George Chakiris—Demy allows the search for true love to guide each story thread and that ideal sweetness and thrill to giddily overwhelm the screen. Criticized upon its release for its outrageously saccharine themes, the bubbly film has risen to prominence in recent years perhaps precisely for its meticulously designed, infectious spectacle of what it feels like to be madly happy and in love.
Directed by Agnès Varda
France 1993, 35mm, color, 65 min. French with English subtitles
The middle of Varda’s three successive films about Demy—between Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy—this homage has as its background the celebration of The Young Girls of Rochefort hosted by the city of the film’s setting in 1992 to mark the 25th anniversary of its release. The celebratory mood is shaded by remembrances not only of the departed Demy but also of Françoise Dorléac, killed in a car accident months after the film’s release in 1967.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Catriona MacColl, Barry Stokes, Christina Böhm
France/Japan 1978, 35mm, color, 124 min. In English
Based, rather unexpectedly, on a popular shōjo manga—Japanese nomenclature given to stories focusing on strong heroines—Lady Oscar transplants one of Demy’s characteristically resilient females to the politically precarious landscape of the French Revolution, in turn breeding something of an unsung feminist costume drama. Born female but raised according to male standards of rank and dress by her domineering army general father, Oscar is someone who falls outside the heteronormative order even as she assumes class privilege and a coveted position as Marie Antoinette’s personal guard. Demy’s epic refuses to call too much attention to its defining gender ambiguity, instead using its heroine’s precise social position as a way of delicately illuminating the political, economic and cultural contexts that shape and in many ways predetermine the development of a person without regard to individual desires. Elaborately decorated and photographically handsome, Lady Oscar joins Barry Lyndon and The Draughtman’s Contract as bold auteurist spins on 17th and 18th century European nobility.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Dominique Sanda, Richard Berry, Danielle Darrieux
France/Italy 1982, DCP, color, 93 min. French with English subtitles
Jacques Demy’s only other film in which all the dialogue is sung, A Room in Town is a companion piece to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Like the earlier film, it takes place in a northern port city—Demy’s native Nantes this time—and it centers on a young couple who face a choice between love and money. With the lighting and color palette mirroring the darker mood, A Room in Town is more firmly grounded in reality than its predecessor. The backdrop is a general strike that took place in Nantes in 1955, and the questions of class that ripple throughout Umbrellas here take center stage. The film was coolly received by the public but praised by the French critics, and today it is considered one of the high points of Demy’s post-1960s career.
Directed by Jacques Demy. With Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni, Micheline Presle
France/Italy 1973, DCP, color, 94 min. French with English subtitles
Demy’s utopian comedy presents Catherine Deneuve still looking like a fairy tale princess and Marcello Mastrioanni—Italian cinema’s icon of cool masculinity—as her sensitive, slightly pregnant boyfriend. The crayon-colored concoction of absurdity and exaggeration remains tethered to Earth by Demy’s sweetly mundane depiction of their working class lives and the characters’ subdued reactions to the unnatural situation. In Demy’s playful speculation of what could happen in such an upside-down world, basically, everyone handles it fairly well. For better or worse, the surprising phenomenon is immediately incorporated into the wider social schema as well as the capitalist imperative—a maternity clothing company the first to see profit potential. Good natured depictions of men suddenly frantic about birth control, healthcare and the rights of their bodies make way for their understanding women a little bit more while women are amused and enlightened by seeing funny reflections of themselves.