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)