Notwithstanding era and country of origin, it would be imprudent to associate Jacques Demy with the French New Wave. Unlike Godard’s or Resnais’s interest in innovation, Demy’s traditionalism never bothers to subvert or transgress cinematic convention. The tenderness he felt—and
inspires—for his characters situates Demy best within established systems, be it the Hollywood musical genre from which he most popularly borrowed in The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or the resplendent Technicolor saturation that became one of his signatures, most lushly in Model Shop. His
appeal, often underappreciated, lies primarily in his romantic sensibilities, with the onscreen result being a world that is
at once fantastic yet relatable. Though
artfully contrived, there’s nothing shallow about Demy’s universe. His empathic worldview is on full display during an
exhaustive retrospective at Film Forum, running October 4–17.
The program showcases all 14 of his feature films (10 in new restorations), a collection of four rare shorts, and three films from Demy’s widow, director Agnès Varda, on her husband’s style and legacy. Of the many rare highlights is 1982’s long-unavailable late musical Une Chambre en Ville (running October 4–12), a somber counterpoint to his earlier, jollier song-and-dance productions. There was always something melancholic about Demy’s work, and it’s particularly pronounced here. Chambre is more Greek tragedy than playful fairy tale. Danielle Darrieux headlines as Margot, a fierce yet aloof baroness watching 1955’s political and social unrest from her rococo Nantes apartment. Demy codifies stylistic excess, like the best melodramatists, as a vehicle for passionate identification. Each color is meticulously complemented, each location discursive. Margot’s once-estranged daughter, Edith (Dominique Sanda), falls in love with a laborer, François (Richard Berry). Comparisons to West Side Story are expected, but Demy’s chamber piece is more pointed, especially in light of his latent homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis. Some of the film’s ostensibly arbitrary conceits, notably the lurid, back-alley meeting between Edith and François, as well as the unexpected Tristan and Isolde–inspired ending, make more sense when read as personalized queer allegory.
Chambre‘s affect closely resembles
Demy’s underrated dramas, namely Model Shop, his most fully realized piece, and Bay of Angels, a ruminative gambling tale. The female protagonists of those films, Anouk Aimée and Jeanne Moreau, struggle to find a place in their worlds. They’re strangers in an even stranger land: Aimée’s Lola hustles by selling her body as a boudoir model, whereas not even Moreau’s platinum-blonde dye job compensates for the despondency she feels while betting her life away. The milieus they inhabit, a foreign and competitive Los Angeles and the losing-hand coldness of a casino, respectively, offer little in the way of security.
These motifs of alienation and isolation were always there, of course, but are more apparent now. One hopeful goal of most retrospectives is to recontextualize and highlight recurring themes so as to deepen an already canonized body of work. In tandem with Varda’s biographical films, this program posits an auteur whose real life may have been closer to his protagonists’ than was previously understood.