His first movie in 1961 is the beauty that is LOLA, Jacques Demy’s valentine to the movies with Anouk Aimee at her most vibrant and animated in perhaps the most likeable film of the French new wave. Demy’s magical story shows that one person's happy ending is often another's missed possibility of happiness. Raoul Coutard's lovingly shot black and white widescreen photography of the French atlantic port of Nantes is a plus, as Lola sings and dances and waits for her lover to return, in what was a key movie for both Demy and Aimee.
BAY OF ANGELS – this 1963 drama is a perfect companion piece to his LOLA - making two of the most enjoyable, accessible New Wave classics. Here the images of Jean Rabier, Michel Legrand's music, Jeanne Moreau at her most magnetic with silver blonde hair and a Cardin wardrobe (all in black and white), all wrapped up in 79 minutes in the story of compulsive gamblers in Nice and Monte Carlo whom it seems Demy observes for a time. The film ends with them continuing their gambling - will they stay together? we don't know.... Moreau is at her peak here as the woman for whom gambling is everything having lost her husband, child, jewellery etc. Claude Mann is the rather dull bank clerk who gets the gambling urge (Paul Guers as his gambling friend Caron would be more interesting and attractive in this role) and he and Moreau are soon a team as he brings her luck but he is falling in love... There is the astonishing scene where Moreau reveals what gambling means to her and how money means nothing, as they win, lose, win again ... Moreau didn't care for the "French Bette Davis" tag but it rather applies here. I love the look of this one and the previous LOLA: that widescreen black and white and the lovely theme by Legrand. A French classic indeed.
Then in 1964 his biggest commercial success and still often revived today, the candy-coloured musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, which is entirely sung by the cast, music by Michel Legrand, and it is just sheer perfection. The young Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as the lovers separated by the war, and that marvellous bittersweet climax at the garage in the snow. The colour and backgrounds are now even better than ever on dvd.
There followed his second musical in 1967, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT which was bliss to see again recently, to see it in colour and widescreen is magical. It is another all singing musical with great colour and sets – the whole town of Rochefort seems to be dancing at one stage. The sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac star, with hoofers an older Gene Kelly, George Chakiris and a blonde Jacques Perrin as a lovelorn sailor. It all works perfectly now and I urge anyone who has not seen it to seek it out on dvd, as it is not as well known as the more famous Cherbourg film, it is in fact a perfect 60s film, which I have written about here several times already.
I saw his 1969 film THE MODEL SHOP on release but it had vanished until now and was not appreciated at the time. This made in America film is a love letter to Los Angeles and the lost souls driving the freeways. Anouk Aimee is again Lola here adrift in Los Angeles working as a glamour model to be photographed in a rather seedy studio (it would of course be a sex shop now) and who gets involved with drifter Gary Lockwood waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam. Its a perfect late 60s L A film
The fascinating thing about this film is that Demy and his wife director Agnes Varda had wanted the young Harrison Ford for this role but he was not considered important enough, whereas the rather dull Lockwood had just come off shooting Kubrick’s 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Next up are two fairy tales, unseen here maybe but big hits in Europe at the time. PEAU D’ANE (DONKEY SKIN) is a perfect 1970 visualisation of the Perrault fairy tale, with Deneuve as the princess who dresses in the donkey skin to escape her father who wants to marry her. Jean Marais is the King, Jacques Perrin the prince and Delphine Seyrig shines as a rather eccentric fairy godmother. It’s a great pleasure to see now.
1972’s THE PIED PIPER is finally on dvd and scenes from it are available in the film THE WORLD OF JACQUES DEMY, a film made by his wife, director Agnes Varda. Pop singer of the time Donovan is the piper and it has a good cast of English regulars including Donald Pleasance and Diana Dors, and it has a nice medieval feel set in Hamelin where rats and plague reign.
His following films do not appear to have been screened in the UK at all and include 1973’s THE SLIGHTLY PREGNANT MAN with Mastroianni and Deneuve (where it is he who is pregnant…), 1979’s LADY OSCAR, UN CHAMBRE EN VILLE (A Room In Town) in 1982 [Dominique Sanda naked under a fur coat!] or 3 PLACES FOR THE 26TH starring Yves Montand in one of his last roles as an older singer/entertainer returning to his home town for a concert.
Agnes Varda, Demy’s wife, is of course a well-regarded director in her own right with films like CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (reviewed separately here) and LE BONHEUR. I am very pleased to have her 90 minute film THE WORLD OF JACQUES DEMY included in the 2 disk version of UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and what a delight it is, covering all these films which star the cream of French cinema who all appear here discussing their work with Demy and how much they appreciated him, as well as contributions from Varda and their son. It is now fascinating to see their footage of the very young Harrison Ford in the late 60s, he is also interviewed here as the star he later became.
Varda also made a film herself JACQUET DE NANTES about the childhood of Jacques in Nantes in France, including reference to and scenes from his films, which is also available in the box sets on her films. Her documentary on the making of LES DEMOISELLES and its 25th anniversary reunion is included in it's BFI dvd release.
In all, Jacques Demy would appear to be as well regarded and loved as Francois Truffaut or Louis Malle and for anyone with the least interest in international or European cinema his films are not only wonderfully entertaining in themselves but also key works of the last 40 years.