As it crests towards its fiftieth anniversary, the cinema of the French New Wave is crystallized in the historical memory in a pair of indelible scenes. 13-year old Antoine Doinel runs towards the sea at the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), the film’s bittersweet score haunting the boy’s uncertain gaze in a final freeze frame. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg make playful love in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), their 22-minute bedroom romp fragmented by the arresting jump cuts that announced Godard’s presence as one of the cinema’s great formal provocateurs. As Richard Brody elucidated in a recent piece in The New Yorker, the historical narrative of the French New Wave has traditionally rested on these twin, yet contrasting pillars: the tender realism and autobiographical impulses of Truffaut and the intellectual devotion and “manic invention” of Godard.
Now consider a treasure trove of scenes lurking in the wake of these cinematic juggernauts. A sailor and a smitten teenage girl spin around on an amusement park ride, their faces framed in slowed-down black and white images in a lyrical tribute to the onset of love. An iris widens just in time to capture the electrifying sight of an ash-blonde Jeanne Moreau as she runs along a windswept boardwalk, her figure receding into the distance as towering piano lines crash across the soundtrack like the waves battering the shoreline. A crane shot glides blissfully across a town square during the preparations for a summer festival, music wafting into the humid air as we move through an open window to reveal a young Catherine Deneuve at the piano.
From the short films he crafted in the 1950’s until his death in 1990, French director Jacques Demy was the creative force behind some twenty films. These scenes - from his films Lola, Bay of Angels, and The Young Girls of Rochefort respectively - are only a small sampling of this exceptional filmmaker’s rich contribution to the French Cinema of the 1960’s. Though Demy’s films were celebrated by his contemporaries in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, the influential bastion of French film criticism, they are often left out of the critical and popular discussion of the major works of the era.
“When writing about or teaching a particular film movement, you find yourself by necessity looking for commonalities that can help to define trends, and for filmmakers whose work seems to embody these trends,” says Lisa Dombrowski, professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. “That's how Breathless and 400 Blows came to be the canonical French New Wave films. Though their sensibilities are quite different, they both vividly illustrate the key characteristics that have come to define the New Wave.”
Demy and his films don’t fit the New Wave designation quite as neatly. Demy was never a critic at Cahiers du Cinema, nor as influenced by film theorist Andre Bazin's thoughts on realism as the five filmmakers most closely associated with the New Wave: Godard, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. In Dombrowski’s estimation, Demy is “a man on the margins, working contemporaneously with the New Wave, but deeply engrossed in his own unique set of formal concerns.”
Demy’s first feature Lola (1961) established the template for his cinema, exhibiting both the movie-mad aesthetic of his contemporaries in the New Wave and an utterly distinct worldview. Dedicated to German-French filmmaker Max Ophuls, whose opulent visual style Demy revered, the film follows an intersecting cast of characters around a sleepy seaside town: Roland, an aimless dreamer; Lola, a cabaret singer pining for the memory of a sailor who once abandoned her; and a teenage girl, Cecile, whose chance encounters with another sailor mirror Lola’s own youthful love affair.
As these characters intertwine in a mosaic of rekindled love and youthful yearning, the trip on the amusement park ride between the smitten Cecile and her sailor emerges as a potent visual metaphor for Demy’s circular storytelling. Every episode in the screenplay reflects on others; as destiny pushes Roland and Lola toward each other, their stories are replayed through other characters in a roundabout of bitter resignation and sweet fulfillment.
Performed with enticing energy by sixties screen icon Anouk Aimée, Lola is, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, the archetypal Demy heroine, “trembling between tears and laughter”. Like its title character, the film is deeply romantic but embedded in a world where sadness and suffering, deceit and death are very real. As Demy states in the film’s opening epigraph, “Pleure qui peut…rit qui veut” (“Cry if you can, laugh if you want to”).
This arresting mixture of emotional timbres characterizes Demy’s entire body of work. In Bay of Angels (1963), Jeanne Moreau plays a compulsive gambler who seduces a young bank clerk and drags him from casino to casino across the glittering, black-and-white Cote D’Azur. From its opening iris at the boardwalk to the climactic reunion of its lovers in a hall of mirrors, the film never loses sight of the destructive contours of its protagonists’ love affair nor the liberating possibilities of their life at the roulette table. In one stunning moment, the camera rises above Moreau and her beau as they stroll down a cobblestoned street, leaving them dwarfed by the opulent shadow of a casino. Tying the characters to the symbol of their fluctuating fortunes in a single expressive camera movement, the moment, like the film itself, is both ominous and majestic.
A compelling combination of sadness and enchantment persists in the fairy tales Demy adapted from works by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm in the 1970’s (Donkey Skin, The Pied Piper of Hamelin) and in his seminal films in another fantastical storytelling mode: the musical.
“It is more plausible as legend than as film fact that someone made movies in which all the dialogue was sung,” David Thomson has written of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the film that epitomizes Demy’s distinctive synthesis of artifice and actuality. Buoyed by Michel LeGrand’s stirring score and the childlike wonder with which Demy choreographs his first ecstatic foray into color cinema, this bold formal conceit never obscures the harsh realities of everyday life. Filled with acute insights into family and class relations, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a rhapsody of romantic longing and loss, as well as one of the few films of its era to deal with the traumatic effects of the Algerian war on the French home front.
Where Umbrellas is often filled with dark irony, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is sweeping and buoyant. With graceful crane shots and a dazzling cameo from Gene Kelly, Demy achieves both a pitch-perfect homage to MGM musicals and a film alive to the textures of modern life, glorying in the ever-versatile LeGrand’s jazz-inflected soundtrack. As in Umbrellas, the film’s song-and-dance routines are delivered with casual, quotidian grace and the walls of Rochefort painted in hot pastels to match the characters’ colorful costumes. Bursting with melodic and visual poetry, Demy’s musicals are lyrical in every sense of the word.
“What will we do with so much joy?”, ask two lovers in Demy’s 1970 fairy tale Donkey Skin. This question haunts the baffled critical response that has greeted his films. At the start of Demy’s career, there was real enthusiasm for his potent merger of formal exuberance and Gallic sadness. Not much later, critics and the public alike derided him for these same qualities. As film programmer James Quandt concluded in his notes to a recent retrospective of Demy’s work at Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario, Demy has been “a major artist condescended to as a stylist”, his “light-hearted, exuberant tone mistaken for triviality”.
Since his death in 1990, Demy’s legacy has been preserved through documentary tributes by his wife Agnes Varda, another major filmmaker woefully absent from most critical discourse on the New Wave “boys club”. There are also a handful of contemporary directors who owe an unmistakable debt to Demy’s vibrant body of work. Lars von Trier was obviously inspired by Demy’s combination of musical fantasy and clear-eyed realism in his Dancer In The Dark (2000), even casting Demy stalwart Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker. French filmmaker Christophe Honoré, a darling of the international art house circuit, has also cited Demy as a primary influence on his acclaimed musical Love Songs (2007).
But Demy remains largely adrift in the wake of the New Wave. Though lackluster DVD transfers of his most well known films are available, The Criterion Collection has yet to canonize Demy’s films for digital posterity, perched as he is in the uneasy middle ground between the classic and the cult classic. By and large, young film-goers do not know his name.
According to Dombrowski, Demy’s idiosyncrasies “make him difficult to include in historical overviews, but he is ripe for cult acclaim.”
“Those who know Demy tend to love him: his films are beautiful yet heartbreaking, and they stir the soul. The challenge is to create a place for him in the conversation.”
The upcoming 50th anniversary of the New Wave is a fitting time for such a conversation.
“Twenty plus years after Demy’s astonishing productivity in the sixties and early seventies, he does not seem quite possible,” writes David Thomson. “Did he really live? Have those wistful, gentle, and melodic films been made? Or is he only an ideal director one has dreamed?”
As the films of Truffaut and Godard are justly celebrated in the coming year, there could be no better time to wake up to the rich, endlessly rewarding films of Jacques Demy.