Growing up and discovering the French New Wave in my late teens, I became preoccupied with the usual suspects: Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rohmer. Yet Jacques Demy never crossed my radar and then went unmentioned in university lectures I attended. Demy, who passed away in 1990, may not have been experimenting as radically with the form of cinema as his contemporaries were, but he was still making revolutionary work. Embracing his influences from French and American movies, he created a new cinematic dream world, combining lush fantasy and breezy naturalism that he would play around in for the entirety of his career, inviting audiences to join in the fun. Starting on June 27, TIFF Bell Lightbox presents Bitter/Sweet: The Joyous Cinema of Jacques Demy , a retrospective that includes his entire body of work. It’s a great celebration of the lively and boundary-breaking series of films that stand right alongside the many other greats of the French New Wave.
“Cry who will, laugh who can,” is the Chinese proverb that opens his debut feature Lola , and it’s an idea that encapsulates much of Demy’s work. Anouk Aimée is the titular Lola, a woman just scraping by as a cabaret singer to support her son and desperately clinging on to the hope that her long-missing husband will one day return to her. Marc Michel is Roland Cassard, a charming but aimless young man who reignites an old crush he had on Lola when bumping into her as he’s considering taking a sketchy diamond smuggling job. Over a couple of days in the seaport town of Nantes, they experience chance encounters, happy accidents, and bitter disappointments, but take everything in stride. They are unknowing passengers on the journeys of their lives, understanding that expectations don’t always become reality, although sometimes they do. It’s a fantastic examination of the fleeting nature of fate, a theme that dominates much of Demy’s filmmaking.
What Demy really did re-energize formally was the Hollywood musical, giving it a shot of creativity unparalleled at the time. He had his greatest success with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg , a Palme d’Or winner and multiple Oscar nominee. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo (who have both never looked more beautiful) play young lovers Geneviève and Guy, madly and hopelessly devoted to each other. But when Guy is sent to Algeria for his military service, Geneviève is left alone to put her life on hold for him, which becomes harder when she finds out she’s pregnant and her mother pressures her into a relationship with a wealthy diamond dealer who is none other than… Roland Cassard (this type of character and plot crossover between films is a Demy staple, reinforcing his creation of a complete filmic world where all his stories exist together). What could have slipped into cheesy melodrama becomes much more poignant in Demy’s hands. The despair of both characters eventually opens to a sense of hope again as they come to terms with their lives needing to go in different directions than they had originally planned, culminating in one of the loveliest bittersweet endings I’ve ever encountered. Visually, the film is decadent, showcasing vibrant colours and dazzling cinematography but what was truly a revelation at the time was that every line in the film is sung. While this is initially disconcerting, Demy so perfectly involves us in his fantastical Cherbourg world that it grows to make sense.
Other highlights include The Young Girls of Rochefort , a full on nutty homage to the Hollywood musical starring Deneuve and Gene Kelly, that somehow manages to have a subplot about a brutal murder without losing any of its joyful jauntiness. Model Shop was Demy’s first American film and it is an under seen little gem that follows an aspiring architect played by 2001’s Gary Lockwood as he drives around LA over a day and a night, trying to figure out what to do with his life while the Vietnam draft hangs over his head like a black cloud. Aimée also reprises the role of Lola here, now living in the US, who becomes an object of Lockwood’s brief obsession.
And if you thought the Arnold Schwarzenegger male-pregnancy comedy Junior was a peak idea of originality, know that Demy got there first with his 1973 satire A Slightly Pregnant Man starring Deneuve again and Marcello Mastroianni as a couple who become media stars when Mastroianni suddenly gets pregnant. It doesn’t completely work but it’s still an absurdly funny look at gender roles, heavily influenced by the second wave feminist movement that was in full swing, and another Demy film that has gone largely unnoticed since.
Can Godard claim to have influenced Schwarzenegger? I think not.
Bitter/Sweet: The Joyous Cinema of Jacques Demy runs from June 27, 2013 to July 20, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
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