Criterion: Une chambre en ville

UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE, JACQUES DEMY, 1982

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After an opening strikers versus police scene that seems yanked from the Les Miserablés play (it wasn’t), the camera cranes up to an overlooking room with a baroness looking down at the commotion. After the conflict dies down, the baroness speaks with her boarder, who happens to be one of the strikers.

Strike that. She doesn’t speak, she sings, and he sings back. The wallpaper is a blood red, which matches her outfit. Immediately this scene recalls The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It may be unfair to compare the two films, but Demy clearly intended to use the same style to tell this new story, and there are parallels with both films, albeit with a far different tone. Every line is sung, wardrobes and sets have matching colors, and so on.

As a musical, Une Chambre is no comparison to Umbrellas. The missing ingredient is Michel Legrand. I’m not sure why his collaboration with Demy didn’t continue, possibly because of the time commitment as he was a busy man at the time. Either way, his presence is sorely missed in this format. Michel Colombier is the replacement, and while he has put together a decent career scoring films, the only other thing he has in common with Legrand is the first name. His music in this film is uninspired and the sung dialogue doesn’t fit into the narrative as snugly as Umbrellas. Without Legrand, I wish they would have chose to let the actors speak rather than sing (or lip-synch). The intensely dramatic script could have made for a much better acting vehicle. Alas, that is not Demy’s style.

From the first ten minutes as the two characters sing the exposition to each other, I was prepared to dislike this film. It was immediately clear that it was trying to be another Umbrellas, and it was also clear that this was anything but. It took some time to introduce the characters and get the narrative rolling, but eventually I found myself taken in. While the music was lacking, everything else was vintage Demy. The costumes, set design and wallpaper did compare respectfully with Umbrellas. I particularly liked the scene with Edith and Guilbaud in his room, with the earthy colors of yellow and brown. These are colors that aren’t bright or flamboyant enough for Umbrellas, but they fit better with the darker story in Une Chambre.

Speaking of dark, when I reviewed Umbrellas, I mentioned how the ending was bittersweet, yet it manages to leave us on a high note. Aside from that, it is bright and bubbly despite being about a romance interrupted by the Algerian War. Une Chambre has a similarly dour premise, with a romance happening at the same time as a 1955 worker’s strike, but this is not bubble gum and butterflies. We know that when Edith and her husband Edmond first fight and the result is domestic violence. Later when Edmond confronts Edith’s mother, the baroness, he threatens to kill both Edith and her lover, if his suspicions of adultery are correct. Edith wears a fur overcoat with nothing underneath and she is bold enough to share the mystery underneath, which is an act far too seedy for the characters of Umbrellas, or any other Demy film for that matter.

I will not spoil how this plays out because it is worth watching. I’ll just say that it lives up to the dark foreshadowing. Compared with Umbrellas, Une Chambre has more grisly violence, stark sexuality, and the characters are not nearly as likeable, but the payoff is daring and not something you would expect from Demy’s universe.

Film Rating: 6.5

Supplements:

There are a handful of supplements on this disc, such as a retrospective and a couple of interviews, but I’m going to ignore those and focus on the two big ones, which happen to be the best supplements in the entire box set.

The World of Jacques Demy: Agnes Varda is an excellent documentarian, but none of her works is nearly as personal as this one. Created within years of her husband’s death, this is a retrospective and love letter of his entire body of work, including all of the inclusions in this set and other notable films like Model Shop and his final film, Three Seats for the 26th. It features Varda and family to a certain degree, but the most powerful sequences are three young girls who are simply fans of Demy. One of them reads a lovely letter she wrote to the director, thanking him for giving her life beauty and inspiration. The others felt the same, and they shared personal stories of how they grew up to Demy, how much they adored him and his work, and how they were left empty with his loss. Neither Varda nor any of his two children talk about his death, but they don’t have to. These three girls say enough.

Jacques Demy, A to Z: Film Critic James Quandt narrates this Criterion-produced visual essay about Demy’s body of work. He uses the alphabet to track Demy’s career, talking about the people who inspired him, motifs in his work, characters, and especially his family. With the letter B, he mentions Robert Bresson. Quandt also did the excellent commentary for Bresson’s Pickpocket, so he knows what he’s talking about. My first reaction when I saw Bresson’s name was that the two filmmakers have little in common with each other. Bresson is austerity while Demy is an eruption of style. Yet, Quandt still demonstrates a number of similarities that I had missed. Many of the male characters in Demy’s world are quiet, austere and understated, especially in his first two black and white films. Quandt parallels these characters with Bresson’s Michel and shows certain Demy scenes that were directly inspired by Bresson scenes. Near the end we get V for Varda, which is the most fitting. Oddly enough, they never worked together and they convey distinctly different styes and tones, but they complement each other and are forever intertwined. Finally, we have Varda and the Demy family to thank for putting this box set together and letting us experience Demy through their eyes.

On the strength of these two supplements, this is the best disc in the entire box set. Also note that The Young Girls of Rochefort is included in the DVD version.

Criterion Rating: 9/10

Posted on September 7, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. While I had a better reaction to Donkey Skin than you, I had almost exactly the same response to this film as you did. First few minutes were “I think I may have made a terrible mistake” but then I got pretty into the film. Demy’s complete mastery of his style was readily apparent. The story had enough twists to keep it interesting, but it didn’t really amount to much. 6.5 seems about right, as I could easily be persuaded to go 6 or 7 on it.

  1. Pingback: Criterion: The Essential Jacques Demy | Criterion Blues .....

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