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
SHADOWS, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1959
As I watched John Cassavetes’ first film, I was struck immediately by how different it was from the films of the era, and how much in common it had with the French New Wave films that were just about to burst onto the scene. I have no idea whether Cassavetes had any inkling of Cahiers du Cinema or any of the young filmmakers who were concurrently putting on their first projects, but I think it is reasonable to say that they arrived at a similar place by taking the same route – the influences of the post-WWII films, particularly from the Americans.
Many have argued that because of the code and the routine during the last vestiges of the studio system, that innovation was falling by the wayside. The film world was ready to be shaken up and it most certainly was in the years to come, mostly by the French, but also by the advent of the American indie that Cassavetes could arguably have begun. The young American filmmakers to follow would be influenced by the New Wave in a huge part, but also by Cassavetes films, if to a lesser degree.
That’s not to say that Shadows is exactly like all the New Wave films, but neither were they like each other. Few people would lump Elevator to the Gallows, The 400 Blows and Breathless together as part of the same style. The point was they came from fresh, young perspectives, which was exactly what Cassavetes brought. Nothing like his portrayal of racial relations or the Beat Generation would be found in a studio film, and that was why it was revolutionary for American film. On top of that, it gave Cassavetes a filmmaking foothold to put together the type of independent dramas over the next two decades that he would become known for, even if they were different stylistically from his debut.
Shadows is not a great film. It is barely a good film. The post-script proudly proclaims that it was improvised (which wasn’t entirely true), and the actors were mostly novices, and the rust shows. The lack of polish is part of its charm. Some of the scenes were stilted, wooden and disjointed, like the African-American musicians talking about their business and the embarrassment of introducing a girl group. Other scenes seemed more natural and fluid, like the courtship and consummation between Ben and Lelia.
Even though it is hit or miss, it is valuable for capturing a scene that wasn’t always represented. There aren’t a lot of movies about the Beat Generation. It is in many ways a document of the culture, even if not a realistic representation of what it was really like.
Movie Rating: 6/10
This Blu-Ray disc features A Constant Forge, a whopping 3 hour and 20 minute documentary about Cassavetes and his process. Wow! From what I have read, the documentary is watchable, if not spectacular. I’m passing on it for now and may revisit after I’ve explored more of Cassavetes’ filmography.
The remaining features are minor. There is a brief interview with Lelia Goldoni, where she describes how she became involved with Cassavetes’ workshop and the atmosphere of his teachings. She talks about her experiences with the films and the improvisation or lack thereof. There is also some silent footage from the workshop and some stills, which gives a distant taste of what it might have been life.
Criterion Rating: TBD (once I watch the long documentary)
THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY
So begins my journey into the world of Jacques Demy. In the interest of disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m not a major fan of his work. Yes, that sounds like sacrilege to many Francophiles, but a major part of that is my limited exposure. I’ve pretty much only seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and clips here and there of other movies, such as The Young Girls of Rochefort. I try to keep an open mind, and with this stacked new box set release, I can dive into his career from the beginning. One of the major selling points is the presence of his ex-wife and widow, Agnes Varda, who I adore. I especially like her Le Bonheur, which has a Demy-like feel to it and was released around the same time of his major films. She will be prevalent through these discs, and there will be some documentaries of hers later.
Demy’s first feature came in the midst of the New Wave. In fact, he probably got his shot thanks to the successful efforts of Louis Malle, Francois Truffault and Jean Luc Godard. Lola is in the spirit of the New Wave. The narrative and plot do not follow a formula. There are a number of different characters with intersecting plotlines, and no direct narrative.
Lola, played by Anouk Aimée, and Roland, played by Marc Michel are the pivot points for these characters. There is also an American sailor, a mother and daughter, and the off-screen presence of Michel, Lola’s first love, who she is still dedicated to after all these years. Roland is a lost dreamer, who was just fired from his job for being tardy and has no regrets about it. He finds purpose when he encounters Lola, a long lost friend that he hasn’t seen in years. They rekindle their friendship, and it becomes immediately clear that he wants something more. Meanwhile, Lola is having a tryst with the American sailor, while still longing and waiting for her first love and the father of her child, who she is convinced will come back someday.
The mother takes to Roland, and the teenage daughter finds herself charmed by the sailor, but not in a romantic way. The sailor is fond of Lola, but he will be leaving soon for Cherbourg and knows that any sort of commitment is not realistic. The mother is a lonely war widow and single mother who seems to have affection for the Roland, but he does not look at her in that way. He sees her platonically, just like the sailor sees her daughter, and like Lola sees Roland. Demy juggles these complicated character motivations with delicacy and explores the nature of human relationships. Basically, his message is that oftentimes what you want does not want you.
Lola was filmed with a low budget, just like many of the early New Wave films. The Criterion print had a lengthy and arduous restoration process, overseen by the Demy estate, but was an uphill battle because the original negative had been lost. They had found a print and worked to get it as close to the original as possible, which was demonstrated in a special feature about the restoration. Unfortunately the print looks terrible, and not quite up to par with most Criterion releases. That said, since this is an ‘Essential’ box set, the movie has to be included as long as the restoration allows the film to be watchable, which it does. This first work is most essential in seeing the roots of what the filmmaker would become. Some have called it a musical without music (although there is one song performed by and about Lola). It’s themes will reoccur in his next films, whether they are nouvelle vague or mainstream musicals.
Movie rating: 8/10
This disc sets the stage for what will be a stacked set of special releases. It contains most of Demy’s early shorts, including his first filmed project, Les horizons morts an 8-minute depiction of a lonely man. The most impressive short in my opinion was Le sabotier du Val de Loire, where a pastoral family makes clogs. What makes this short special is the care and fondness for the subjects. It is more about their way of live rather than the clog-making process. It reminded me of Robert Flaherty documentaries, only without being staged or embellished. There are four shorts in all, which vary in quality, but are still worth seeing.
The documentary about the restoration is interesting, although you can tell that they are making some excuses for why the print is so poor. Mathieu Demy oversaw the process, and his input was primarily how to preserve the artistic intent rather than creating a technically perfect restoration. Since his part was mere snippets, I’d rather not play the blame game, but given the condition of the print, I think a little bit of artistry could have been sacrificed for clarity.
BAY OF ANGELS, 1963
One thing that is immediately apparent when watching Demy’s second feature is that it is a grander production. It may not measure up to his later color films, but it is ambitious. The main draw is that he cast Jeanne Moreau, who at the time was queen of the New Wave, having starred in Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, Jules et Jim, and La Notte. Despite her track record, her role as Jackie was a departure for her. First, she ditched her reknowned dark hair for a platinum blonde. Second, the character was hopelessly addicted to gambling, completely self-centered, impulsive, and basically a wreck of a person.
Like with Lola, the male lead is a meek, naïve, lovesick young man, this time named Jean, who basically becomes Jackie’s lapdog. He tries his hand at gambling in a local casino, has some beginner’s luck and a large windfall, which he then uses to take a trip to Nice for more gambling. There he runs into Jackie at the roulette tables. His luck rubs off on her, and they bond for adventures in Nice and Monte Carlo. He begins the movie being reluctant to fall into the trap of gambling, and disturbed to hear the pathetic stories of Jackie’s addiction. They have a roller coaster of winning and losing, and eventually he becomes like her. He makes poor decisions, mostly because of his romantic desire for her. She treats him like a puppy dog, and at one time admits that she is using him for his luck.
While I was impressed with the look of the film and the performances, particularly Moreau, I had some problems with the film. The major plot hole for me was that the gambling was completely unrealistic. I’ve spent my time near a roulette wheel and have never seen someone win or lose in such quick and dramatic fashion. Then there’s the matter of the ending, which I won’t go into detail about. I’ll just say that it didn’t seem realistic given how the characters were developed.
Movie Rating: 6/10
This disc was pretty thin. There was a 12-minute interview with Jeanne Moreau that I enjoyed. There were a few dumb questions, which I thought she handled well. I liked how she talked about choosing roles and how she chose to work with directors regardless of the material. That worked out pretty well for her.
There was another, shorter featurette about the restoration. Since they had the master, the process was not as difficult.
Criterion Rating: 7.5/10 (both discs)
PICKPOCKET, ROBERT BRESSON, 1959
Pickpocket is one of those films that I’m surprised I haven’t seen. It has been referenced numerous times in film class, and its influence on other films is well documented. It is arguably the most influential Bresson film, which is saying something. Even though I hadn’t seen it, I felt like I had. I’ve seen the ending maybe a half-dozen times, and I’ve seen it copied, most notably by Paul Shrader who was obsessed with the film and contributed towards it being revisited and eventually enshrined as one of the greats.
I have seen enough other major Bresson works that I’m familiar with his quiet, contemplative, and spiritual style – the Bressonian tone. Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot du Lac and others are beautiful, yet challenging films. A Man Escaped shares more in common with Pickpocket. They both have quiet, downtrodden characters, both with often expressionless performances. These explain why the film is often watched multiple times, because the subtleties in expression are easier picked up on subsequent viewings. Even the slightest reaction becomes more monumental, more telling, and makes you question what the film is trying to say.
I’ve heard people describe both Pickpocket and A Man Escaped films as slow, but compared to some of the spiritual films, they are quite fast paced. Pickpocket moves very fast for a Bresson movie, as pointed out in the commentary. If you break down the events that take place in the plot, it sounds like a bit of a thriller:
SPOILER ALERT —
Man steals to help his sick mother.
Man gets caught, gets let go.
He learns more about how to steal.
Goes on a thieving spree with two accomplices.
Gets interrogated by police, close to being caught.
Leaves country, comes back and tries to steal again.
Gets caught, thrown in jail.
Gets redemption through a girl.
I could see another director taking the same plot points and making the film more exciting, less memorable, and a more fleeting and bland experience. This film is not just about what happens to the pickpocket. It is about exploring his soul, why he becomes what he becomes, how he lives with it, and why he comes back to it.
Movie Rating: 9.5/10
The introduction from Paul Schrader is interesting and useful, but not essential. He explains what he sees in the film, how it has affected his career, and why it has lasted.
There is a short French TV interview with Bresson in 1960. What I found interesting about this was that the interviewers were antagonistic, and somewhat attacked the film and it’s cool reception. For instance, they asked why Pickpocket was disliked when A Man Escaped was liked. Bresson handled himself well, and said that people identified more with the hero and escapist rather than the criminal.
Film scholar James Quandt’s commentary was extremely well prepared and said a lot about the film. If anything, it was too academic and robotic, but that’s what I look for in academic commentaries. These are the types that really enhance the perception of the film. He points stuff out that you might eventually come to on your own after half a dozen views, or looks into various readings of the film. Because Pickpocket is such a quiet film, I appreciated his constant vocal presence and that he always had something to say.
The best feature was a documentary from 2003 where the filmmaker tracked down three of the former stars. The interviews with Pierre Leymarie and Marika Green were captivating because they go through the Bressonian process, and how he breaks down the performance for the amateur actors (or Models, as he called them), so that they are not really acting. He takes take after take to get what he wants and never lets the actor know which it is, but tends to use the later takes when the actor is tired. That is certainly apparent in Pickpocket, where all the actors have a worn down look, and explains why the tone and character appearance is consistent throughout most of his films, because he just about always uses non-actors and molds their performance the way he wants.
In the second half of the documentary, they find Martin LaSalle living a quiet life in Mexico City. He recalls his experience in fascinating detail, but focuses more on the emotional impact that the entire process left on him. He said it took him 10-15 years to recover from the experience. He went to study with Lee Strasburg and barely worked in the decade after Pickpocket, until eventually settling in and making a living. His personality was affable and gregarious. You could see moments of dourness, especially as he recalled the aftermath of the movie, but overall he was a pleasant person. I see that he has continued to act in Mexican films, and he is probably very happy with these occasional small roles that allow him time to tend to his gardening.
Criterion Rating: 10/10