By Ray Young
Alan Scott and Anouk Aimée, Lola
L’ Univers de Jacques Demy
Lola Written and directed by Jacques Demy. Cinematography by
Raoul Coutard. Edited by Anne-Marie Cotret. Original music by Michel
Legrand. Co-produced by Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard. With
Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Alan Scott, Elina Labourdette, and Jacques
Harden. 90 minutes. Originally released in 1961.
Bay of Angels / La Baie des anges Written and directed by Jacques
Demy. Cinematography by Jean Rabier. Edited by Anne-Marie Cotret.
Original music by Michel Legrand. Produced by P-E Decharme. With
Jeanne Moreau, Claude Mann, Paul Guers, Henri Nassiet. 79 minutes.
Originally released in 1963.
The World of Jacques Demy / L’ Univers de Jacques Demy Written,
narrated and directed by Agnès Varda. Edited by Marie-Jo Audiard.
Music by Michel Legrand and Michel Colombier. 90 minutes. Originally
released in 1995.
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Given his flights of fancy, the abject buoyancy, and those impromptu musical interludes, it’s safe to say that Jacques Demy (1931-1990) is an acquired taste, one who falls in with directors you either love or don’t. A predilection for Demy’s sunny idyll, The Young Girls of Rochefort
(1967), perhaps the only film I’d welcome being physically transported into, may cast doubt on the validity of my enthusiasm for the DVD releases of Lola
and Bay of Angels
. Are they truly masterpieces, or am I simply under the spell of Raoul Coutard’s diffused images, Michel Legrand’s lush melodies, and the combined poignancy of Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau? Ooh-la-la!
Such a dilemma!
Arguments against Demy have accused his scenarios of naïveté and his camera for having a tourist’s eye for locale. While he may be guilty on the first count (I don’t believe he is), Demy’s visions of Rochefort, Cherbourg, Nantes, and Côte d’Azur are awash in nostalgia, resplendent with the yearnings of the director and his quixotic characters. Walking, dancing or driving in separate directions, the starry-eyed and the cynic are impelled by either a prophecy of love to come or pining over one long gone, and all of them invariably dangle at the mercy of fate.
It could be further argued that Agnès Varda — Demy’s soul mate and mother of his children — is too intimate with the subject to provide The World of Jacques Demy
the impartiality expected of a documentary. But objectivity was rarely Demy’s strong suit, he appears to have been as utterly romantic as his films suggest, and Varda’s trademark informality corroborates Demy’s principle of rules having no bearing when it comes to matters of the heart.
The World of Jacques Demy
is not the first of Varda’s dedications to her late husband: Jacquot
(1991) and The Young Girls Turn 25
(1993), the latter made to supplement the revival of Rochefort
, expose the spouse as groupie. Unconcerned with chronology and entirely unpretentious, The World of Jacques Demy
disregards the popular practice of droning celebrity ‘talking head’ interviews. When Legrand, Aimée, Moreau, Claude Berri, Catherine Deneuve and other luminaries (including a surprise visit from Harrison Ford) pay tribute, it’s with the same humility Varda draws from the cross section of ‘common folk’ she’s gathered for the occasion. Most touching of all is the trio of young women declaring their love of Demy’s universe as they sit by his grave.
It’s easy to comprehend the girls’ awe over his idealism, for the multiple times they’ve undoubtedly watched The Young Girls of Rochefort
and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
(1964) has enabled them to better understand the simplicity of his composition and purpose. (I, for one, make it a practice of seeing Rochefort
about twice a year.) This may be the best way to appreciate Demy, to value his peak years with Legrand and Deneuve, and the successful relocation of elaborate musical forms away from Hollywood.
By contrast, his first film, Lola
, appears to emanate from a much darker place, though not by intention. After financing Jean Luc Godard’s cost-effective Breathless
(1959), producer Georges de Beauregard realized how far he could go on a franc, and put the kibosh on Demy’s proposed use of color, music and costumes. What would have been a splashy homage to MGM and Stanley Donen became a humble, bittersweet introduction to the recurring characters and intersecting lives that run throughout his subsequent films.
Beginning with an on-screen dedication to Max Ophüls (appropriate, given his influence on Demy), the film opens in glorious black-and-white, the audio shifting from Legrand to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The introductory subject — a tall blond man (Jacques Harden) dressed in a white suit, white Stetson, and driving a white convertible — floats in and out of Nantes, a modern knight on his grand charger. Thus, from the beginning, Demy’s penchant for fairy tales is unmistakable, and Lola herself (a vivacious Anouk Aimée) becomes the first of his many distressed damsels. Her reunion with a childhood friend, Roland (Marc Michel), leads us into additional situations which, in turn, trickle down to still others. (Attracted to the younger Roland, Elina Labourdette as a bourgeois single mother is especially touching.) Demy methodically lays the groundwork for future scenarios: there will be a blonde sailor from Nantes in Rochefort
, Roland will be singin’ in the rain in Cherbourg
, and Lola herself will discover gloomy prospects in Model Shop
Bay of Angels
, conversely, has no connection to the characters of Lola
or those of the later films. A perceptive study of obsessive behavior, it lacks the fantasy overtones Demy generally invites, and instead considers individuals whose decisions are motivated by sickness and delusion. While his characters often exist in a dreamscape of chance and coincidence, Bay of Angels
’ Jackie (Jeanne Moreau) and Jean (Claude Mann) are tangible, but live by the idealistic principles that govern compulsive gamblers.
Cued by Legrand’s cascading piano, the characters’ short-lived winning streaks in roulette at first emerge as so many small triumphs. But Demy (never overbearing or straining credibility) balances this with the losses to better demonstrate the narcotic effect of their recklessness. As they figure odds and expenses, sizing up croupiers and tables become paramount concerns while life outside the casino appears trite and dull. (Incidentally, the film may have been an influence on Barbet Schroeder and Tricheurs
Her flow in mood and manner achieved to perfection, Moreau credits Demy for guiding every detail of her performance. And despite the remarkable series of roles she played in the early ‘60s — in Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold
(1958), Antonioni’s La Notte
(1961), Truffaut’s Jules and Jim
(1962), and Losey’s Eva
(1962) especially — she has imbued Jackie of Bay of Angels
with a distinct personality. Shifting in and out of depression, pensive in times of reflection, jaunty when immersed in a theatrical, temporary opulence (she’s quite a sight with boa and cigarette holder), Jackie evolves into a memorable tragic figure. Rushing toward the departing Jean at the end, artfully reflected off a series of mirrors, Moreau and Demy elevate the picture to a state of grace.
From restorations supervised by Agnès Varda in 2000, Wellspring Media’s DVDs of these films are excellent in both sound and image. The latter is particularly important, providing an opportunity to enjoy Raoul Coutard’s experimental cinematography for Lola
, and Jean Rabier’s creative technique in Bay of Angels
. (Rabier had worked on Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7
, which ends on a traveling shot similar to the one that opens Bay of Angels
. He was later cinematographer on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
.) Demy’s range and virtuosity is indisputable. By watching Lola
and Bay of Angels
in tandem with The World of Jacques Demy
, those who doubt his significance may transform into bona fide fans.
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