Welcome to the castle of Judge Gordon Sullivan, the French bastard!
Our reviews of Donkey Skin (Peau d'Ane) (published May 23rd, 2005), Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy: Criterion Collection (published November 17th, 2003), and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (published May 5th, 2004) are also available.
"An entire cinematic world."
The French New Wave gave us a handful of world famous directors. If asked, most people can summon the names of Jean-Luc Godard and Fran çois Truffaut. More knowledgeable movie fans might then reach for Alain Resnais or Eric Rohmer. Some might even pull out allied filmmakers like Chris Marker or Agn è s Varda. Often forgotten in connection with the movement, though, is Jacques Demy. Though a couple of his films are fondly remembered classics, he often isn't given the due his contemporaries frequently are. That's pretty understandable as Godard is relentlessly experimental, delivering masterpiece after masterpieces that pay homage to Hollywood without feeling beholden to it. Truffaut seeks a particularly rich interiority with his romantic leanings. Resnais keeps up a rigorous formalism, while even Rhomer made films that audiences could connect with. Demy, in contrast, seemed to take all of the best qualities of his colleagues and combine them into his own vision that put Hollywood and fairy tales on the same gorgeously framed plane. His reputation has been slowly rehabilitated since his death in 1990, and now thanks to Criterion's frankly fantastic box set The Essential Jacques Demy, fans new and old can (re)discover this master of the French New Wave.
Facts of the Case
The Essential Jacques Demy gathers six of the director's features (about half the films he helmed).
Bay of Angels
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Young Girls of Rochefort
Une Chambre de Ville
It's easy to see why Jacques Demy didn't get the same credit as his contemporaries. The Cahiers du Cinema crowd of Godard and Truffaut spent thousands of words trying to convince readers that there was value in Hollywood products, essentially trying to rehabilitate genres like the western for discerning French audiences. Those directors could then incorporate some of those generic elements into their own pastiche-style films, their love tinged with a hint of irony. In contrast, Jacques Demy never seems to think that Hollywood films need rehabilitation. He doesn't want to borrow the elements of the musical (like Godard did with A Woman is a Woman) but instead wants to make his own Hollywood musical, which he did with The Young Girls of Rochefort). Though there's a level of artifice to Demy's work—he's totally in control of the camera, the colors, the staging, etc—he never keeps his subject at an ironic distance. In the 1960s that probably made him look a bit retrograde, but now he looks clear-eyed and prescient. I'm sure that's part of the reason that Criterion has gathered six of his films together in one gorgeous 13-disc set.
The films are arranged in chronological order, and start with Demy's first feature, Lola. As a debut it has a lot of things going for it. First, it establishes Demy's interest in ensemble stories, something he would carry on throughout his career. It also turns some of that New Wave energy onto an ensemble cast. Whereas many of Godard and Truffaut's films are about one or two people navigating the world, Lola shows a much larger cast going through the day-to-day life in France. The fact that it's all captured in wonderful black-and-white by New Wave stalwart Raoul Coutard only adds to the classical feeling of the film. If I have one complaint it's that the film feels a bit too much like a grab bag, like Demy has seen to many films and hasn't found his voice yet. These influences would congeal as a basis for Demy's own vision later, but here they feel a bit all over the place.
Demy would start to leave his own stamp on his favorite genres with his next film, Bay of Angels. It has the kind of jet-set location hopping that would sit perfectly in a Hitchcock film, with all the energy of a road movie wrapped in a noir exterior. But not just any noir exterior; Demy combines the femme fatale and sense of doom with the sun-bleached sights of Monte Carlo. It's a great combination. And if it wasn't obvious from Lola, it certainly is with Bay of Angels: Demy really likes to cast beautiful women as the leads in his film. This time it's Jeanne Moreau, and her iconic blonde hair adds an extra layer of tension to the film.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an odd follow-up to Bay of Angels. Though the former is sun-drenched and beautiful, its black and white noir-vibe clashes with the sunny, pastel-colored visions of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. However, Demy continues his blending of dark and light. This time, the vehicle of typically saccharine songs is used to tell a story of arranged marriages and the (only recently ended) Algerian war. Demy also continues his collaboration with Michel Legrand, the legendary composer who helps elevate this musical. Add in a simply wonderful performance from Catherine Deneuve and you've got a recipe for a candy-colored confection that packs a pretty big bite.
Since the musical thing worked so well for him with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy followed it up with The Young Girls of Rochefort. Here, he doubles down on his love of musicals. Instead of crafting a kind of French take on the genre, Young Girls does its best to be a Vincent Minnelli picture like An American in Paris. Right down to casting Gene Kelly. But it's still a Demy movie as well, with Catherine Deneuve again, chronicling life in the non-Parisian portions of France. There's more ensemble madness, a bit of the melancholy tinge, and more colorful scenery. If it's not quite as dizzying in its joy as Umbrellas, it makes up for it with variety.
Donkey Skin is the one head-scratcher of this bunch. Lola makes sense as a kind of low-budget indie first feature. Bay of Angels keeps the black and white and goes for a noir vibe, which fits. Umbrellas and Young Girls look like left turns in comparison, but they're made so beautifully that they fit pretty naturally in Demy's work. Donkey Skin, though, is an adaptation of a famous French fairy tale and appears several years after Young Girls (and here the set skips a film, The Model Shop). It's a real period film, and hasn't aged quite as well as his other movies. It's got a bit of stately elegance, and establishes an effective fairy tale atmosphere, but it really serves more to highlight Demy's diversity rather than his strengths as a filmmaker.
The set's final film is a bit of a return to form for Demy. Though he made six films after 1970's Donkey Skin, Une Chambre en Ville is the only representative of his later career. I can't speak to what we're not seeing, but as a mark of what the 52 year old Demy could achieve, Chambre is another fine ensemble drama, sung in its entirety like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It goes for that tragic opera vibe and largely succeeds. It is, however, significantly more pessimistic than his previous work, and though everyone strives mightily for the film, it ends up feeling a bit disappointing overall, as it never coheres.
This is a dual-format release from Criterion, meaning we get Blu-ray discs for every feature as well as DVD versions (though in this case there isn't complete overlap between special features, so you need both the Blu-ray and DVD discs to get everything out of this set). With a few understandable exceptions, this set is simply amazing.
Extras start with a set of short films that Demy made around Lola, including his portion of an omnibus film, The Seven Deadly Sins. We also get a lovely restoration document showing the process that helped rescue Lola from total obscurity. Star Anouk Aimee appears in two short clips being interviewed by Agn è s Varda, and in another moment the pair talk about Lola's song (written by Varda, but interpreted by Aim ée). Finally, the film's re-release trailer is included.
• Bay of Angels
This film gets an excerpt from a contemporary TV show that runs almost 14 minutes, mainly sticking with Moreau as an interview subject. Another featurette has Demy biographer Marie Colmant discussing the many of Demy's films. We also get another restoration featurette and the film's re-release trailer.
• The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Extras kick off here with a 2008 documentary on the making of the film with interviews by all the usual suspects, some new and some archival. A number of interviews are included separately as well: a 1964 TV interview featuring Demy and Legrand, another with Legrand from 1991, and one with Deneuve from 1992 (both of the latter are audio only and recorded at the National Film Theater). We also hear from critic Rodney Hill, who situates Demy squarely with the French New Wave. Finally, we get another restoration demonstration and the film's re-release trailer.
• The Young Girls of Rochefort
Extras start with the documentary that helped kick start Demy's re-evaluation, "The Young Girls Turns 25." Combining everything from on-set footage to interviews with the stars and those denizens of Rochefort who were there for filming, the documentary gives a solid picture of the film and its impact. More behind the scenes material is included in an excerpt from a Belgian TV show, and another TV excerpt provides an interview with Demy and Legrand. Costume designer Jacquiline Moreau is featured in another interview that really digs into her collaboration with Demy. There's no restoration demonstration this time, but we do get a trailer.
• Donkey Skin
The extras here largely focus on the fairy tale: we get a 10 minute featurette on the history of various adaptations, while another, longer piece has a group of "thinkers" discuss the tale and its continued appeal. An excerpt from Pour le cin é ma delves into some of the film's production. Finally, we get an audio feature of Demy at the AFI answering questions during a Q&A. Strangely, no trailer is included for this flick.
• Un Chambre de Ville
This film includes the other documentary that Varda made in the early '90s, "The World of Jacques Demy." It's a loving portrait of her husband and a master of cinema. At 90 minutes it provides a great overview of his career and impact. We also get an hour long video essay from James Quandt that uses the alphabet as a device to structure his reflections on Demy and his films. Demy himself appears for a 16 minute Q&A from 1987. We also get another restoration demonstration and the film's trailer.
Each film gets its own fold-up case that all slide into a handsome cardboard sleeve. Also in the sleeve is the usual Criterion booklet. This one runs to 68 pages. Each film gets its own essay from a variety of critics, scholars, and fellow practitioners.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a bit expansive for Criterion to call this The Essential Jacques Demy. Though all of the films have something to recommend them, the only truly essential ones, to me at least, are The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. But, that's basically all there is to complain about with this set. In a perfect world Criterion would also release these films (or at least Umbrellas and Young Girls) as separate Blu-ray/DVD editions, but otherwise this set is as perfect as it can be without a time machine to rescue Lola from the flames.
The films range from simply classic (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) to odd curiosity (Donkey Skin), but together add up a vision of Jacques Demy as a unique voice in the history of world cinema. Criterion have done everything they can to honor that unique voice. Taken singly, each of these films would be a decent edition, but as a set they have even more impact, demonstrating the importance and beauty of Jacques Demy's legacy. Fans of the French New Wave and lovers of musicals should definitely seek this set out. Anyone who has owned a previous edition of any of these films should also feel confident upgrading.
If I could sing it, I would…Not Guilty!
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Perp Profile, Lola
Distinguishing Marks, Lola
• Short Films
Scales of Justice, Bay Of Angels
Perp Profile, Bay Of Angels
Distinguishing Marks, Bay Of Angels
Scales of Justice, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
Perp Profile, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
Distinguishing Marks, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
Scales of Justice, The Young Girls Of Rochefort
Perp Profile, The Young Girls Of Rochefort
Distinguishing Marks, The Young Girls Of Rochefort
Scales of Justice, Donkey Skin
Perp Profile, Donkey Skin
Distinguishing Marks, Donkey Skin
Scales of Justice, Une Chambre En Ville
Perp Profile, Une Chambre En Ville
Distinguishing Marks, Une Chambre En Ville
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