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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

Criterion: The Young Girls of Rochefort

THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, JACQUES DEMY, 1967

Recently with a group of film buffs, we’ve had some conversations about Blind Spots. These are the films, genres, directors, themes, or whatever attributes that just rub you the wrong way and turn you off from a film. My blind spot are many of the American musicals from Classical Hollywood. I’ve tried and just cannot get into them. Part of it is the overdose of style over substance, and I think they often spend too much time and space distracting from what makes films good (plot, character, conflict). For instance, why spend 5-minutes on a song saying one thing about a character when you can reveal plenty more with actions against other characters?

Basically I like musicals where a character is a musician and that says something about him (Once), or where the art of the musical is a major part of the narrative (All That Jazz), or pretty much anything directed by Ernst Lubitsch. There are other conventional musicals I like, such as Singing in the Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, and some I hate, like An American In Paris and My Fair Lady. I know, it’s not too defensible and I realize that. Despite my personal tastes, I understand that the American musical was a major institution, created by enormously talented people, and they deserve their place in the lists of the best of American film.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an exception to this Blind Spot because it is revolutionary, and breaks from the formulas that I dislike. The music actually adds to the characters, all of whom are deeply drawn and identifiable.

I was wary of The Young Girls of Rochefort because I knew this was more in the style of the musicals that rub me the wrong way, especially An American in Paris. Fortunately I found that, while Rochefort is nowhere close to as groundbreaking as Umbrellas, there was enough there to make me appreciate the film. The characters were not as deep and their encounters more fleeting, but the film is made exceptionally well and manages to transcend what is not my favorite formula.

There are a number of characters with various objects of affection that dance around each other (literally and figuratively), with their perfect matches seemingly just barely outside of the picture. First, there are the carnies, who are basically interested in a good time and act more as distractions to the real romantic interests. There is the sailor who has devised his ‘feminine ideal’ and even painted her, which coincidentally looks like Catherine Deneuve’s demoiselle character. Meanwhile, the twin sister, played by Francois Dorleac (who tragically died the year this was released) encounters and brushes off Gene Kelly, who is a fit for her artistically and creatively, since they are both musicians. Finally, there is a shopkeeper with the unfortunate last name of Dame, who used to be involved with the demoiselle’s mother, who operates a frites stand and has no idea that he is even nearby.

The Umbrellas of Cherboug managed to have a deep message and a light presentation, and I thought that might be the way that Rochefort would go as well. Since the sailor and the demoiselle kept barely missing each other, was Demy saying that the feminine ideal is unobtainable? Even to the end I wondered what he was saying here.

[Spoiler]

As we learn in the final scene, the circus that is en route to Paris picks up the sailor as a hitchhiker, so we assume that he will meet his feminine ideal. It isn’t tightly wrapped up, but the message is clear. It is strengthened by the statement by her ex-lover who lies and tells her that this love interest is in Paris, which is “too small for your passion” and that she will find him. So, overall, there isn’t much of a message here. It is more about the journey of finding someone, at least for the demoiselles, or not finding someone for the carnies, who will go from place to place and stay lonely, although they don’t seem bothered by this.

[/spoiler]

Movie Rating: 7/10

Special Features:

The big one here is Agnes Varda’s The Young Girls Turn 25 documentary, which revisits the town of Rochefort 25 years later. It shows how the city has been revitalized, how the locals remember the project, and how it has become a permanent part of their culture. One local proudly carries around the VHS cassette of the movie everywhere she goes (hopefully upgraded to Blu-Ray by now).

It is a little more than an hour-long, but is a lot different than the standard documentary special feature. This is a Varda film, and rather than just rehashing a lot of tidbits of information from the film shoot (which it does to some respect), it takes a journey. In this case it is much of the crew, stars, and extras all coming together to celebrate the anniversary of the film. Much of it is jubilant, although some is somber. The scenes where they dedicate streets to Jacques Demy and Francois Dorleac were especially touching, the latter of which had Catherine Deneuve breaking a bottle to christen her sister’s street, barely able to hide the emotions of her loss through large sunglasses.

There are other quaint, fly-on-the-wall types of features. There’s another French TV special with Legrand and Demy working out the music of the film and answering some questions. The song was the one that the carnies sing, and it was a treat seeing them work out the timing, the ending, and how it would transition to the next scene.

There were also a couple features surrounding the costume designs and set designs, which were mostly about Rochefort, but also touched on Umbrellas. I enjoyed hearing about how the costume designer collaborated with her husband who was the art director to match clothing. Rochefort wasn’t as flamboyantly colored, but it certainly had a look. They paid a lot of attention to little details, such as coloring 1,000 total shutters on random buildings.

Criterion Rating: 8.5/10