Heaven and Hell


Entranced, romantic, utopian, and utterly French, Jacques Demy has always been the most patronized and underappreciated of the major nouvelle vague voices. Nobody’s fave among the New Wavers while he was alive, Demy eschewed brooding enigma and ironic realism in favor of a one-way ticket to Happily Ever After. But he was more than a starry-eyed glosser; Demy was aware, as few directors have ever been, about the similarities between Hollywood and life, be they tragic or joyous. It just so happens that Demy loved it all: love affairs begun, ended, betrayed, and crushed by fate; everyday minutiae accumulating into bursts of swoony heartbreak; real oceanside towns envisioned as slices of candy-coated heaven. He was certainly no less conscious of film history and meta-ness than Godard or Rivette, but Demy became the movement’s balladeer rather than another surgeon, and so his films were consumed and enjoyed like mousse and dismissed as insubstantial after the fact.

This singsong fable-spinner seems like an odd choice for revival these days, but ever since the rediscovery of his 1964 lollipop avalanche The Umbrellas of Cherbourg some six years ago, gassed-up Demymania has continued its arc. (You can even find the Miramax-revived The Young Girls of Rochefort in Blockbuster.) But Demy’s films aren’t merely confections: Lola is Demy’s A Woman Is a Woman, thick with hanging song cues, philosophical happenstance, bustling old-movie fauna, and an exhilarating ardor for its characters and itself. Likewise, Cherbourg and Rochefort are self-analyzing bombardments of happiness, always wondering how far and near the formal idealism of musicals is to the genuine flow of life.

Bay of Angels (1963), Demy’s second film, is a relatively sober affair. Unseen here since 1964 (when Voice critic Andrew Sarris pronounced it “a piece of cinematic vaudeville”), it’s not an un-musical but a semi-noir, a pensive, edge-of-the-law pas de deux between compulsive gamblers. The movie’s pilot light, Jeanne Moreau stars as Jackie, an “industrialist’s wife” who, we eventually learn, is such an irredeemable demimondaine that she lost custody of her only child. (“I’ve got the feeling I gambled him away,” she says in a chillingly matter-of-fact off-moment.) Crowned by a bleach-blond bouffant, wearing Gabor-sister eyelashes, and drawing on a ubiquitous cigarette as if it were her fuel source, Moreau is emblematic Eurotrash—and Demy’s scenario is careful to edge this perfectly conceived social type toward an existential brink. Jackie loves gambling, she says, for its “stupid mixture of poverty and luxury.” Blithely beyond loss or gain, hardly caring whether she’s rolling in winnings or begging for bus fare, Jackie is exactly the kind of extreme characterization that makes real noirs still throb—she’s the blood sister of The Tarnished Angels‘ Dorothy Malone and Gun Crazy‘s thrill-fetish lovers.

Shot in breathtakingly vivid black and white by Jean Rabier, Bay of Angels views Jackie’s no-future desolation through the placid eyes of Jean (Claude Mann), a mild bank clerk whose roulette windfall sends him on a coolheaded tour of Nice casinos, looking for a lifestyle overhaul. Of course, once he finds Jackie, his vague plans crystallize into a love story; even so, their symbiotic relationship slowly turns into a parasite/host showdown. Demy frames the action with enormous restraint; most of the time, you don’t see the roulette wheel during a decisive spin, only the two gamblers distractedly waiting for the croupier’s call. But for the cascading Michel Legrand piano score, you’re not even aware the movie is a romance until the final tracking shot. Most of all, it’s an early chapter of Demy’s courtship with the provincial France of his youth, with the most bewitching generation of French actresses, and with movies.

Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) is another kind of auteurist revival—an early mood-work in a career maddeningly slip-sliding between brilliant, unnerving apocalypses (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Fearless) and bloodless, if evocatively filmed, cliché (Witness, Green Card, Dead Poets Society). The Last Wave falls somewhere in the middle, an orthodox yet fanciful doomsday machine derived from native Aussie myth. As something of a riposte to the glut of Bible-based horrors of the ’70s, Weir’s glowering countdown follows a stuffy corporate lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) through the various stages of aboriginal Armageddon. As a fantasy of smug white civilization taken down at the knees, The Last Wave is a minor triumph of atmosphere and nightmare imaginings: a schoolkid-assaulting hailstorm, sourceless water running down a carpeted stairwell, a dream of flooded urbanity as seen from inside a submerged car. If Weir’s track record for choosing projects and resisting schmaltz has been patchy, his eye for unorthodox visuals has always been evident—Australia has never seemed so unearthly as it does here. Still, its use of myth is on the obvious side, and its disjunctions are right on the surface. And with the iconic and dreary Chamberlain engaging with the spooky scenario as pure spectator, The Last Wave musters little fallout. It doesn’t approach the end-time hellfire of, say, The Rapture, possibly because Christian lore is more commonly familiar. Weir’s touristy vision is strictly from the outside looking in.