Thursday, September 3, 2015

Jacques Demy: Initial Thoughts

I've finally come around to seeing some Jacques Demy movies. Not sure why it took so long, as I picked up the box set Criterion released nearly a year ago, but regardless, here's some brief thoughts on his first three films, all of which are terrific:

Lola (1961). Dedicated to Max Ophuls and named after Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola from Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, Demy's debut is an absolute blast, a love letter to great cinema that preceded it while also a unique piece of filmmaking on its own terms that never feels like just a pastiche of his idols. It's set in the large French city Nantes but it feels much smaller as characters are constantly running into or narrowly missing each other on the streets. As one character leaves the frame another will enter, a labyrinth trick of coincidence that gives the film a kind of circular quality, which of course is one of Demy's ways of paying homage Ophuls, the master of the circular narrative (see La Ronde or Earrings of Madame De). While Demy embraces the contrivances of his narrative, at its heart the film has something a little more serious on its mind, namely the conflict between responsibility and selflessness and carefree selfishness. The titular character, Lola (Anouk Aimee, the gorgeous actress well known for appearing in Fellini's La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2), a cabaret dancer who struggles to make ends meet while raising her son, embodies the latter, while her old lover Roland daydreams, watches films, visits book stores, and suffers from the anxiety that he wants to do great things but is in fact doing nothing. 

 Bay of Angels (1962). For his second film, Demy went much darker, dealing with a couple of gamblers, Jackie and Jean (Jean Moreau and Claude Mann) as they dig themselves deeper and deeper into the world of addiction by succumbing to the lose, win, repeat mentality that casinos rely on from their patrons. It's a love story as well, but Demy is very smart about the romance in the way he shows how it's structured around Jackie and Jean's fortunes at the roulette table. If they come away on top, their emotions shift and their riches bring them closer together, and if they wind up on the losing end, Jackie particularly becomes temperamental, scrounging around for whatever she can to get back to the casino despite Jean's warnings. It's never quite clear what Jackie really thinks deep down because we know that she's been abandoned by her husband and child due to her addiction and that she might just think it's valuable having Jean by her side because he brings her luck and more importantly, usually has some money in case she runs out. If the film feels repetitious it's because Demy seems thoroughly invested in the way gambling addiction works, which by nature is a repetitious and impulsive practice. It also adds to the circular interest he established in Lola, only this time it's not a trick but result of the nature of gambling.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). One of Demy's most popular films, this was his first musical (though rather than individual songs, the characters simply sing their lines the entire film) as well as his first film in color. But it actually shares a lot of the sentiments with Lola, as well as one of that film's main characters, who drifts into the narrative a third of the way through--a Faulknerian technique Demy would continue to employ throughout his career. The film begins as an idyllic romance between two young lovers, Genevieve and Guy (played by Catherine Deneuve, in her first major role, and Nino Castelnnuovo), but soon turns somber as Guy leaves to fight in the war and Genevieve takes on a new suitor despite the fact that she's pregnant with Guy's child. What was a bright breezy little musical turns into a somber meditation on the pain of waiting, reality vs dreams, and the challenge of adapting to new ways of life based on the behaviors of others. In other words, its themes are almost identical to those explored in Lola. It's also a gorgeous technicolor achievement, with bright, exaggerated walls and costumes clearly in the vein of classic Hollywood musicals--but at the same time more extreme in their eye popping hues. I was reminded a little bit of Wes Anderson's use of color, and because there are several instances when Demy uses closeups of his characters directly in the middle of the screen, it wouldn't surprise me if this had a big impact on Anderson's visual interests. 

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