The Magic of Jacques Demy

Taking a look at the French director’s fascinating filmography.
By  · Published on March 20th, 2017

One of the biggest films of 2016, La La Land, owes a thing or two to French director Jacques Demy. The bright, colorful musical visually mirrors Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and director Damien Chazelle was able to capture something of the melancholic sweetness of Demy’s musicals. Demy is not one of the most famous French directors; however, his films have a specific charm and intelligence that no other filmmaker could match. The way he blended Hollywood style with French culture was unlike any other filmmaker at the time.

Demy began his career in 1960s France, during the time of the “Nouvelle Vague” or French New Wave. This was the time of films such as Breathless, Jules and Jim, The 400 Blows, and Le Beau Serge. However, Demy lies a little bit outside of this group of filmmakers and is more frequently associated with the Left Bank group  — which also includes Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Demy’s wife, Agnes Varda. Robert Farmer of Senses of Cinema notes that these filmmakers’ works were more politically, aesthetically, and intellectually demanding than those of Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol.

Demy’s early works such as Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1962) bear more of a resemblance to the traditional French New Wave films, with their grainy black and white cinematography and hand-held camera work. Demy is particularly interesting because his films are less literary and are more traditionally cinematic than the other Left Bank directors. By 1964, Demy had found the perfect balance between classical Hollywood cinema and intellectual European art cinema. His films look lush and sumptuous, yet the visuals do not distract from his underlying critiques of social class, gender roles, and French society. Demy’s films frequently take place in fantasy worlds, yet still address real-life issues: they are musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Une chambre en ville) or fairy tales (Donkey Skin, The Pied Piper), and magic and fate become intertwined with practical matters such as money, marriage, and work.

Jonathan Rosenbaum points out that Demy is frequently misunderstood in English-speaking countries in that he is not considered a political filmmaker. Rosenbaum notes that while Demy did make musicals, fairy tales, and films drawing on classical Hollywood, he also dealt with the real world and real places, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Although his films take place in fantasy worlds, they also address serious issues such as the Algerian War, heartbreak, labor strikes, and single motherhood. Rosenbaum writes that Demy’s musicals are unique in that they are sung-through, with narrative information being conveyed through song, rather than having the songs halt the narrative, as in traditional musicals.

His first musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a tragic love story in which the young lovers, played by Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, are separated because of the Algerian War. The film is melodramatic and colorful, with over-the-top visuals mirroring the dramatic narrative situations. It sometimes seems as though the screen is bursting with feelings, which is heightened further by the fact that characters sing their lines rather than simply speaking. Within this world of bright orange and pink wallpaper and color-coordinated costumes, Deneuve and Castelnuovo deal with the heartbreak of war, unplanned pregnancy, losing family members, and the difficulty of returning to one’s hometown after serving as a soldier. Just because the world appears bright and people constantly sing and dance, does not mean that everything is good and happy all the time. This is not mindless entertainment, even if it appears that way.

Similarly, The Young Girls of Rochefort is not as sunny as it appears either. After all, about halfway through the film, an ax murder takes place, and the characters cheerfully make jokes about it as they read about it in the newspaper and pass by the crime scene. Rosenbaum notes that the film begins with dancers performing on a suspension bridge, which is a reference to Demy’s childhood as he grew up around suspension bridges. The dancers perform inconsistently throughout the film; sometimes all of the characters onscreen dance in unison, and other times only a few people dance on the periphery of the frame while the other characters walk or stand. Rosenbaum notes that this instability gives one a sense of unease and exuberance at the same time — something only Demy is able to achieve. Rosenbaum refers to this as “defamiliarizing,” or making strange, the form of the musical. His films borrow visuals and musical cues from Hollywood musicals of the 1950s — such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Singin’ in the Rain, and An American in Paris  —  but the themes he deals with are not as simple as heterosexual romance or being successful in one’s career.

In The Young Girls of Rochefort, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac star as artistically talented twin sisters who long to move away to Paris. Their mother, played by Danielle Darrieux, owns a french fry shop and works constantly while raising their little brother, Booboo (Patrick Jeantet). Demy addresses single motherhood here, suggesting that just because a woman has raised three children on her own, does not mean she cannot also be a successful businesswoman. Her daughters seem to follow in her footsteps, as they live independently from her and make their way through life by giving music and dancing lessons to children. The women in Demy’s films are interesting, complex, and successful. Deneuve and Dorléac’s characters have distinct personalities and each wants different things out of life, yet they constantly support each other along the way.

The film is also visually fascinating, as all of Demy’s films are. It is well-known that the film was shot on location, and that Demy had shutters and walls repainted in bright pastel colors in order to make the world of the film more cohesive. The twins wear the same costumes — the same dresses, hats, jewelry, and shoes — although each one is always in a different color from the other. Everything onscreen is symmetrical, especially the dance numbers that take place in the town square. The wide frame makes this symmetry all the more impressive, as Demy had to carefully compose these large-scale shots. As I mentioned earlier, his references to Hollywood musicals are twisted – he takes the colors and the beautiful shot composition from Stanley Donen’s films and amplifies them as much as he possibly can.

In 1970, Demy directed Donkey Skin, also starring Catherine Deneuve. This film is a musical as well as a fairy tale (based on Charles Perreault’s Donkeyskin) and is just as visually beautiful and intense as the two other films I have mentioned so far. In much the same way that Demy makes the form of the musical seem strange, he does the same thing with the fairy tale in Donkey Skin. Demy takes the traditional elements of a fairy tale – Medieval setting, kings and princesses, a castle, romance, magic – and twists them around, making them seem humorous and slightly disturbing. He also makes references to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast, including having human actors play statues and casting Jean Marais, who played the Beast. Demy takes elements from this classic fairy tale film and spins them around to fit his own strange interpretation.

The film mostly deals with incest, as the King (Jean Marais) is set on marrying his daughter, played by Deneuve – clearly not light and romantic subject matter. The Princess is so disturbed that she flees the kingdom and ruins her appearance so that she appears to be a poor beggar who wears donkey skin as clothing. The terrifying prospect of her father attempting to marry her makes her leave behind her past identity entirely. Of course, there are also some lighthearted and whimsical scenes such as when the Princess bakes a cake for the Prince, which includes Catherine Deneuve singing to herself across reverse shots. The ending is also quite humorous yet also strange, as the King and the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig) arrive in a helicopter to announce their marriage to one another.

I have only outlined three of Jacques Demy’s films here in order to explore his eccentric and unique filmmaking style. To this day, there is no other director who so perfectly blends melodrama, Hollywood glamor, and harsh social critique. His films are endlessly entertaining and emotional, yet at the same time, they confront uncomfortable realities about life, specifically French life in the 1960s and 70s. Demy cultivated a strange but beautiful filmmaking style, and, together with his wife Agnes Varda, is one of the most unstoppable and underrated French directors of all time.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.