||Of all the directors to emerge from the French New Wave of the nineteen-sixties, Jacques Demy (1931-90) may have been the most idiosyncratic, which considering some of the competition included Jean-Luc Godard is really saying something. He had a preference for romance, with a leaning towards artifice and how that would often paradoxically bring out the truth in the stories he told, with his greatest achievement The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the most perfect encapsulation of this approach, and one of many musicals he made. If you want to get a strong impression of his talent, the Criterion Collection's The Essential Jacques Demy Blu-ray set is a great place to start.
It collected six of his works along with documentaries and shorts, which when taken as a whole would demonstrate the variety of his ability as well as the themes that emerged over the course of his career. Take Donkey Skin. (or Peau d'âne as it was originally titled), on the fifth disc, a fairy tale that harked back to Demy's childhood when he got the taste for directing by staging puppet shows, often of Charles Perrault fables of which this was one. But while there were aspects of Cinderella to the story, Disney would not have touched this one with a bargepole, since it would have involved some uneasy conversations on the way home if children had seen it with their parents.
This was because it played out as an avoidance of incest, for after the Queen dies, the lovely Princess (Catherine Deneuve) finds her father the King (Jean Marais) wants to marry her instead to bear him a male heir for their kingdom; the Princess loves her father, but maybe not enough to do that, so seeks a solution from her Fairy Godmother (Delphine Seyrig) who summed up the knowing tone ideally. She seems well aware she is in a fiction, and drops in anachronisms ("A battery? What's that?") along with the famous arrival in a helicopter for the finale, but more importantly is insistent that the King's affection for his wife has been perverted into his desire for his daughter.
If that sounds grim (or Grimm), Demy dressed it up in such enchantment that it captivated nonetheless, endlessly colourful, throwing in inventive effects, and a dash of creepiness to give it an edge. When the Princess's last resort is to wear the skin of the King's magical, jewel-shitting donkey which turns her into a stinking, filthy scullery maid, we know the Cinderella yarn was unfolding after a fashion, but with its lessons of archetypes not in a way we had seen before. Demy would try this again without the magic in his The Pied Piper adaptation, and while that has its fans, it did not have the popularity of Donkey Skin, his biggest success at the French box office, significantly.
The other discs have five other films from Demy on them, first up being Lola, his feature debut from 1961 where he cast Anouk Aimée in what may be her signature role, for a work that certainly made waves as part of the Nouvelle Vague. Not a high-budgeted film, it concerned her as a young mother courted by three different men, all of the characters in various states of loneliness that the others could or possibly could not remedy. Anouk was appropriately magnetic as a presence in what was ostensibly a tribute to director Max Ophuls' Lola Montes, a film Demy had loved and wished to evoke in his own endeavours. But he while this was excellent, he would have his own style. [Click here to read a review.]
Disc two was Le Baie des Anges from 1963 (literally, The Bay of Angels, a coastal location in France), another tale of lost souls though the two concerned here had found a purpose in life around the gambling tables of French casinos. Not as emotionally resonant as his debut, it was more of a character study, though love did feature as the two souls were Jeanne Moreau, a flighty, probably untrustworthy gambler who keeps you at arm's length unless you might bring her luck, and relative novice Claude Mann who quickly picks up all the bad habits of baseless superstition that goes into spending your life trying to make a living at roulette, but seeing yourself lose more often than not. [Click here to read a review.]
Disc three was 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy's most famous and celebrated work, and one of those best suited to high definition as the colours popped on the screen. It told the tale of a young love where it seems like the most important thing in the world, but when time passes and a different perspective arises, there is heartbreak and a maturity that achingly does not negate the emotions initially felt. Both hard edged in plot and swooningly romantic in execution, it was a musical too, and entirely sung as the cast mimed to the trilling and crooning on the soundtrack; designed to make the audience cry, it assuredly succeeded as a defining French hit of the sixties. [Click here to read a review.]
Disc four was his equally musical follow-up, The Young Girls of Rochefort from 1967, a tribute, as many of his efforts were, to a former style of filmmaking or filmmaker from the past. This time it was the Hollywood efforts of the previous decade with their Technicolor production numbers and here, one of their stars as Gene Kelly made an appearance as a character. Filmed on real streets, specially dressed, it too became a cult film with its themes of love never quite finding its best target without a lot of luck, and Catherine Deneuve (returning from Cherbourg) and her sister Françoise Dorléac teaming up to carry the main plot, as such subplots as a murder (!) bubbled under. [Click here to read a review.]
Disc five was Donkey Skin, and then we took a leap forward for 1982's Un Chambre en Ville on disc six, another of Demy's musicals though the twist here was the focus was not solely romantic but also political, concerning as it did a strike in his native Nantes and the fallout from that. Dominique Sanda was probably the best-known name aside from Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli, all of whom sang rather than were dubbed, and it drew itself up to a tragic outcome for the love triangle (or maybe love square) that this revolved around. As Demy had less than a decade to live, this was his last film of real note, though he did make further works before his untimely demise.[Click here to read a review.]
If these whetted your appetite for background information, further reading if you liked, then here are the extras, spread across the six Blu-rays:
New 2K digital restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays of Lola and Bay of Angels and 5.1 or 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin, and Une chambre en ville
Two documentaries by filmmaker Agnès Varda: The World of Jacques Demy (1995) and The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993)
Four short films by director Jacques Demy: Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)
Jacques Demy, A to Z, a new visual essay by critic James Quandt
Archival interviews with Demy, composer Michel Legrand, and actors Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Jean Marais, and Jacques Perrin
Once Upon a Time . . . "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," a 2008 documentary
Episode from Behind the Screen, a 1966 series about the making of Young Girls
"Donkey Skin" Illustrated, a 2008 program on the many versions of Charles Perrault's fairy tale
"Donkey Skin" and the Thinkers, a 2008 program featuring critic Camille Tabouley
New conversation between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau
New interviews with journalist Marie Colmant and film scholar Rodney Hill
Archival audio Q&A with Demy
Archival audio interviews with Legrand and Deneuve
Interview with actor Anouk Aimée from 2012, conducted by Varda
Interview with Varda from 2012 on the origin of Lola's song
Restoration demonstrations for Lola, Bay of Angels, Umbrellas, and Une chamber
PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critics Ginette Vincendeau, Terrence Rafferty, Jim Ridley, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Anne E. Duggan, and Geoff Andrew, and a postscript by Berthomé
New covers by Jason Hardy
To go into a little of that in more depth, the short films in more detail were...
Les horizons morts (1951) - Demy's first foray into filmmaking was an eight-minute short that starred himself as a heartbroken young man whose ill fortune in love has driven him to the brink of suicide. It is only a revival of his religious faith that rescues him. Obviously the work of a talented amateur at this stage, the short was strong on romantic desolation, with the protagonist's hovel matching his inner turmoil, but very much a navel-gazing exercise as far as creativity went. Still, an interesting artefact to have.
Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956) - This was one of Demy's early documentaries, a style he tried out before narrative fiction films dominated in his style. It told the story of a clog maker whose endeavours we watch in a life of poverty, but the fact he has a skill and a loving wife redeems him, and the emphasis was on the circularity of existence, be that the seasons or the repetition of the working day, over and over until, well, until death. One of the clog maker's friends dies in the course of the filming (or maybe was staged) giving the director a chance to morbidly concentrate on the great unknown that meets us all eventually. All that and a virtual instructional manual in making clogs.
Ars (1959) - another documentary, set in the small French town of Ars, though you imagine this would have trouble playing in Britain with that title. It is about the one-time priest of the nineteenth century whose body, incorruptible like the man himself, lies in the church there, and as the camera roves around the place Demy tells us of how his piety was tested in the face of indifference and eventually hostility at his judgemental conviction the parishioners were headed for Hell. He is what would now be termed in a religious mania, so obsessed with his calling (ten to twelve-hour confessions every day!) that it drives him insane. Nevertheless, he does find acceptance.
La luxure (1962) - rather than a standalone effort, this short was part of a portmanteau film which gathered various New Wave directors to contribute, each focusing on one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Demy chose lust, where a couple of likely lads lech around Nantes and one reminisces about how he thought luxure - lust - meant wallowing in luxury when he was a little boy. This included a singular view of Hell, like a nudist medieval banquet in flames, and ended as one of the lads imagines women around the café they are in naked, like Russ Meyer's debut The Immoral Mr. Teas. If nothing else, it was instructive to see from this and the other shorts how Demy's religion informed his early outlook.
If you want the best overview of Jacques Demy, the person to ask would have been his widow, Agnès Varda, who tirelessly promoted his work and as a result raised his profile significantly after his death. To that end, her 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy is vital for background, with interviews from many of his collaborators such as Catherine Deneuve and Anouk Aimée and a well delineated impression of the man and his art, plus lots of anecdotes. But really, the best way to find out what this great artist was about is to watch his films, and this set offers a perfect opportunity to do just that, or to reacquaint yourself with them if you have ever enjoyed them before, as it can legitimately be said to feature classic material.