Demy Monde

Jacques Demy's worldview extends well beyond the French New Wave

In an interview last fall with critic Sam Adams, Gaulywood poster boy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) bristled at the mere mention of the French New Wave. It's the way the Strokes must feel when someone brings up the Velvet Underground. "Oh, I hate the New Wave, except for the first Truffaut movies," complained Jeunet. "It's all sad stories, couples fighting in the kitchen." Uh-huh. Leaving aside the fact that he's...well, off his rocker with regard to the New Wave and its legacy of playful films, it's understandable why the director of Amélie wouldn't rush to acquaint audiences with the work of Jacques Demy. After all, Julian Casablancas doesn't go around handing out copies of White Light, White Heat.

Ironically, Demy's very lightness--his bittersweet effervescence, his embrace of the swooniest tropes of Hollywood musicals and romantic trifles--made him a dim star in the New Wave firmament, outshone by the more insistent charm of Truffaut (Jules and Jim) and Eric Rohmer (The Sign of Leo), the sinister elegance of Claude Chabrol (Les bonnes femmes), the groundbreaking experimentation of Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, mon amour). By the time of his early death in 1990, at age 59, Demy was routinely dismissed as the movement's twee miniaturist: that guy who made Gene Kelly movies and fairy tales while the world was at the ramparts. Try convincing ideologues that upholding grace and beauty in times of ugliness is itself a revolutionary act.

It wasn't until the mid-Nineties, when a restored version of his 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg returned to dazzle anew, that contemporary viewers started to see Demy as something more than a dabbler in moribund genres. Now, Demy's first two films--Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963)--have been restored as well, by his widow, the filmmaker Agnès Varda. (They're screening for a week on a double bill at Oak Street Cinema.) Encountering them in this form is like running into a childhood love after 40 years, and finding her youth undimmed by a second.

The analogy isn't as gushy as it sounds. To see such a person would make our hearts leap, sure--but the sight would also carry a piercing pang of our own mortality: The other person's perfection would only intensify the awareness of our own imperfection. Demy's films have the same inextricable formula of elation and melancholy, of mundanity and magic. Yes, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a cinematic lollipop in which lovers float down the street, and every line of dialogue is sung to a Michel Legrand score as sweet as Cherry Coke. At the same time, those very musical conventions are used to evoke the delusions of young lovers and the fragility of romantic ideals against the battering of war, economic necessity, and fate. The power of its heart-rending finale--an awkward encounter at an Esso station hushed by snow--comes not from a sugarcoating of life's disappointments, but from an open-hearted acceptance of them.

Lola and Bay of Angels are neither musicals nor in color, and yet they're scarcely less lilting than the rain-misted Umbrellas. If Demy's later films (including 1967's criminally underrated The Young Girls of Rochefort) scale the Hollywood musical down to the modest particulars of daily life, his first two imbue kitchen-sink subject matter with the intensity and heightened emotion of a knock-'em-dead production number.

Shot in sumptuous black-and-white CinemaScope by Raoul Coutard, the Nouvelle Vague's secret weapon (he also photographed Breathless and Jules and Jim, among many other classics), Lola establishes the motifs and boundaries of the Demy monde. The setting is Nantes, the seaside town of Demy's youth, to which he would return in subsequent films. Sailors swagger down the streets, as if searching for an MGM backlot. Here single-mom dancer Cecile, played with sad-clown radiance by Anouk Aimée, plies her trade in a waterfront dance hall under the name Lola--a nod to Marlene Dietrich as well as Lola Montes director Max Ophüls, to whom the film is dedicated. Men flit in and out of her life and her bed while she awaits the return of her child's father and true love: a tall blond man who vanished years ago to seek his fortune.

Dense with film allusions (Lola's mopey suitor mentions the shooting of his Parisian pal "Poiccard," the Jean-Paul Belmondo character from Breathless), Demy's first feature creates a world in which life and the movies intermingle. The whims of chance whisk characters into each other's paths with the geometric precision of screwball comedy. The results, however, are less funny than poignant. Even when Lola gets her happily-ever-after ending, riding off into the sunset in a white convertible, she can't help but look back at a chance not taken.

Demy's insistence on the power of chance and the exhilaration of risk gives his gambling drama Bay of Angels an edge of mad exuberance. Few movies have dared to portray compulsion so alluringly. The hero, sullen bank clerk Jean (Claude Mann), lets a buddy talk him into sampling the thrill of staking several thousand francs on a spin of the roulette wheel. He knows when to quit, though, so it isn't really gambling. It takes a true addict-- Jackie (played by a sunlight-blond Jeanne Moreau, who gives madness a glamorous immediacy)--to hook him on the irrational all-or-nothing bet that pays off only in exaltation or punishment.

Accompanied by a pulse-racing Legrand piano theme (the sound of curiosity plunging into abandon), Jean and Jackie drift from luxury to poverty on the Riviera, while Demy reads every sickening turn of the wheel on their tense faces. Yet Jean is grateful to discover the extremes of emotion and is spurred to save his rootless companion. "What counts is to want something," he tells Jackie, "no matter what the cost is." It is a sentiment full of illusion-free optimism, of impractical hope and foolhardy risk, of a passion undeterred by disdain and despair. Which makes it a fitting career statement for Jacques Demy, a filmmaker who saw no value in placing small bets when the heart was at stake.

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