THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY, 2014
This is the first completed box set for this blog, although there should be another one following pretty closely behind. This was a good one to start with. Going in, I had limited exposure to Demy, and wasn’t a huge fan of what I saw. Even though this set only includes the ‘Essential’ titles, it’s the best representation of his work, and with the shorts included, I felt that I had seen the development and evolution of style.
Even though I wouldn’t call any of his films masterpieces, I closed this set having a lot more respect for his craft. He went to places that other filmmakers wouldn’t go, and did some things that were truly original. I really like that his film universe had some connectivity, with reoccurring characters, motifs, and references to other films in the mise-en-scene. This would not be as easy to pick up if you watched the films individually over a longer span of time.
There are a couple of titles omitted that I wanted to see, especially Model Shop. My expectations are not high, but it seems to fit into the Demy universe since it is a sequel to Lola. Since the Demy family was so involved in this project, I am hopeful that Criterion will work on some of these other titles as standalone releases. On that note, I’m praying for an upgrade of Varda’s 4-films. The fact that this set was so comprehensive and she was heavily involved, I’d say it is a strong possibility.
Aside from Lola, the restorations were all impressive. Many of the discs had a short restoration supplement, and it was neat to see them remove blemishes as they found them. Lola’s restoration was poor, but I know that they had problems getting a workable master print. Since it was his debut feature film and it set the stage for so much of his later work, it had to be included regardless of the quality.
As for my impression of Demy, as mentioned, it improved. Musicals are my blind spot, but I found myself enjoying The Umbrellas of Cherbourg far more on this new visit, and I appreciated The Young Girls of Rochefort. As I progressed further into the set, I found myself appreciating Lola and Bay of Angels a little more, and will enjoy revisiting them at a later date. Donkey Skin was disappointing. While Une chambre en ville didn’t measure up to it’s stylistic sister, it was surprisingly effective, and it was refreshing to see Demy push beyond the boundaries he set for himself.
There were no commentaries on any discs. While that was disappointing, the vast number of supplements almost made up for it. I appreciated the two Varda documentaries a great deal. In fact, her The World of Jacques Demy is my favorite film of the entire set. I missed a lot of the critical examinations on the earlier discs, but was pleased to view James Quandt’s A-Z evaluation. His essay and Varda’s documentary were on the final disc, and that punctuated the set extremely well.
Here are all of the films:
Box Set Rating: 8.5
DONKEY SKIN, JACQUES DEMY, 1970
After watching two New Wave-ish films, and the two arguably most popular French musicals of all time, the last thing I expected was a surrealistic and unusual fairy tale. It is based on one of French Author Charles Perrault’s (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) lesser-known fairy tales, and is nearly a reverse Beauty and the Beast, which was not a Perrault work.
The tale begins with a king losing his fair wife and promising to not re-marry any princess that is not as lovely as her. This seems to be a typical and benign fairy tale premise until it takes a wide left turn. After reviewing the available princesses, he finds that none are worthy of the vow. Finally he realizes that there is one princess that he has forgotten to consider, his own daughter, played by Catherine Deneuve. He decides he must marry her. She isn’t opposed to the idea since she loves her father, but for some reason it doesn’t feel right. She demands that specific colored dresses be made for her, which the king obliges, until she finally requests a dress made out of the hide of a Donkey that, umm, defecates jewels. The king also obliges, and she uses this skin as a disguise to escape.
If that doesn’t sound weird enough, much of the rest of the film has Deneuve traipsing around with a Donkey head on top of her, looking ridiculously silly. On top of that, she encounters a kingdom that is obsessed with the color red. Everything is painted red, including the horses. The fairy tale aspect reminded me in a way of Louis Malle’s Black Moon, albeit with a clearer narrative and without the nudity. To my surprise, I found in the supplements that Demy intended this to be a children’s film, and he said that the incestual content would not seem unusual to young children because they naturally love their parents. I’m no prude, but I wouldn’t show my children a movie that even touches on them having a relationship with their parents, but maybe he is right that a child would miss this taboo. It’s difficult to put yourself in that position as an adult.
While this one doesn’t exactly fit tightly into the already established Demy oeuvre, it contains many elements that are familiar from his earlier films. I wouldn’t call this a musical, but it does contain a few Michel Legrand songs, which the actors sing in the same manner as Umbrellas and Rochefort, clearly lip-synching. The use of color and attention to detail is also Demy-esque. This is the case in the first palace, but it really stands out in the latter kingdom with the strong red color scheme. The costumes are also fantastic, and overall this is a technically accomplished film.
The problem is everything else. This does not quite work as a children’s fairy tale, and the reverse Beauty and the Beast plot is mundane and lazy. Some scenes go on for far too long, such as when the king is reviewing princesses, or later when the prince is trying to fit a ring on a maiden’s finger. It seems that Demy meant this as a commercial work without saying much. I’d say he failed on that level, yet still managed to put together a visual feast.
Film Rating: 4.5/10
Pour Le Cinema: This French TV program contained set interviews with Demy, Deneuve, Marais and others. This is the supplement that has Demy talking about how the children would not pick up on the incest theme. Aside from that, most of it was light and promotional, with the participants talking about how much they liked working on the film.
Donkey Skin Illustrated: This was rather interesting. They showed sketches, drawings and paintings inspired by the story. The best ones were those of the princess wearing her donkey skin. Many of them were the way that Demy portrayed it on screen.
2008 Discussion: This is a round table discussion with a critic, psychoanalyst, and literary buff about the film and it’s themes. While I said above that the film said very little, they brought out a few themes that I had missed, like the theme of liberation that embodied hippie generation of the time.
Demy AFI Interview: This was an audio recording at AFI, which I didn’t listen to in its entirety. In the parts I listened to, they talked about the process. Unlike a lot of other lighter interviews (like the French TV one), the AFI asks good questions about the filmic elements. It seems like an interesting interview.
Criterion Rating: 5.5/10
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.
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.
Movie Rating: 7/10
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
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, JACQUES DEMY, 1964
After the opening credit sequence, the film begins in a garage, with Guy finishing up his work. There are not many images that are more masculine than a group of male auto mechanics fraternizing. Think of the crew from Drive a Crooked Road as they hoot and holler at the women passing by. This is a different auto shop, and the masculinity is quashed the moment they open their mouth. This is not a musical with regular actors occasionally breaking out into song. This is a movie where every line is sung, and not in the manner of a Mick Jagger or Tom Jones. The men sing with high pitched voices, in falsetto, in an instant shattering the stereotype of the masculine image.
While Demy was undoubtedly influenced by American musicals, what he created was truly original and groundbreaking. From the concept that every line of dialogue is sung to the sharp, loud and bright background colors that match the actor’s wardrobes, he broke through convention with a blowtorch.
Even now, some 50 years later, the world that Demy created takes some getting used to. I’ll admit that for me, giving it a second try with this Blu-Ray disc, it was not easy to get absorbed into this movie, but once there, I didn’t want to leave. The next 90 minutes fly by, as you become invested in the relationship between Guy and Geneviève, and whether it will survive his departure to the Algerian war.
Even though the movie’s presentation is the embodiment of consumptive lightness, the overall theme is rather complicated and not altogether pleasant. It is the choice between passion and practicality, something that most adults have to face at some point in their lives, and something that was the theme to what could be considered the film’s prequel, Lola. Roland daydreams and yearns for passion, but is ultimately scorned and chooses a responsible, practical life. Lola has plenty of temptations that might make immediate sense, including the potential coupling with Roland, but she waits for her original passion, and that choice pays off.
In The Umbrellas of Cherboug, Roland has changed entirely and is the face of practicality, whereas Geneviève is a shopkeeper’s daughter that is madly in love with someone from a lower class, Guy, who works in a garage of all places. This relationship could work, although it would not be without challenges, which is something that both parental figures realize and try to convey to the love-struck lead characters.
Because we have been trained by Hollywood that true love always survives despite all obstacles, the ending of Umbrellas is bittersweet and difficult to absorb.
Even though they both have their doubts, they have made their bed and have to sleep in it. Guy is at peace with the decision he has made, and that is exemplified by how he happily plays with his son in the film’s final shot. Geneviève’s appears to be consumed with regret, even if she’s the one driving the Mercedes, wearing expensive clothing, and looking as upper class as her recently passed mother wanted for her. Together, they would have made for a more passionate pairing, but they would have faced struggles in life that might have hurt them in the long run. Did they make the correct choice? That depends on your perspective. However, the choice was made and time has passed, so they have to live with it.
Some people have problems with the ending, but I think it is one of the film’s strengths. This is a movie about love, sure, and you become invested in the two main characters, but it is also about life and the choices we make.
Movie Rating: 8/10
This disc is full of extras, making it appropriately the most loaded yet in the box-set.
The Once Upon a Time documentary was fixating, nearly as good as the movie itself. It has many archived interviews with Demy, Legrand, Varda, Deneuve, and it peels away the layers that went on behind the scenes. As some would expect, the voices were not the actor’s, but they did sing as they acted in order to get the affectations correctly (and apparently they all sang awfully). I thought it was fascinating how tough the movie was to sell to distributes, seeing how successful and iconic it is in hindsight. Yet since it broke boundaries, I can see why people were reluctant.
There is a short interview with Demy and Legrand for French TV. These pieces are always of interest to me because the French media can ask direct, difficult questions. I thought the questions they posed to Legrand about how he compares with Bach and Beethoven, and whether those classical composers would have made film scores was pointed, but a very good question. They were basically asking whether he had compromised his own integrity in order to create film music. I thought he handled the questions with aplomb, and rightfully did not elevate his own talent to the world’s best composers ever.
Film Scholar Rodney Hill gives a 20+ minute interview that I thought worked effectively well. He gives a bit of a retrospective and contextual basis for Umbrellas, and makes the thematic connection with Lola. He talks about many of the difficult realities with the movie, and how it was a product of the Algerian war, which had just ended when the film was released and was fresh on the minds of the masses of people who saw the film.
Just like the previous two discs, there was a short piece on the restoration. They repeated some points from the previous two, but I liked how they showed the RGB print composition and color correction. In some ways, they have used controversial Turner-like methods to adjust the color, but they are doing so to get as close to Demy’s artistic vision as possible.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
This is the disc that makes buying the box-set worth it. Umbrellas is a landmark in French and World cinema, and Criterion has held up to their reputation of putting everything they can into their biggest and best releases.