Jacques Demy’s wistful, romantic, exuberant films brought another dimension to the Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s. While his contemporaries were drawn to the aesthetics of Film Noir and Italian neo-realism, Demy loved the style and sentiment of American musicals, which he reset in a French context and transformed, through cinematic daring and a personal vision nurtured from childhood, into something magical. Love – its transient joys and bitter disappointments – was a constant theme running through his work; his protagonists often finding their attainment of it thwarted by chance and coincidence. While some have described his work as fantasy, Demy was just as concerned with portraying real life and genuine human emotion accurately as the other leading New Wave directors and his work has a depth and sincerity that undercuts any possibility of over-sentimentality.
Demy’s reputation declined in the later years of his career after a series of box-office disappointments, but since his early death in 1990, restorations and retrospectives of his work, especially his 1960s collaborations with composer Michel Legrand, have introduced his work to enthusiastic new audiences. Here we present our top ten selections:
Trois places pour le 26
(Three Seats for the 26th, 1988)
Demy’s swansong stars Yves Montand as himself, returning to his hometown of Marseilles to rehearse a musical revue based on his own life. When Marion, an aspiring local actress, is chosen to replace the female lead in the show, Montand discovers to his amazement that she is the daughter of the woman he loved when he was a young man.
The Pied Piper
When a plague of rats invades the town of Hamelin, the inhabitants turn to a wandering minstrel for help. This retelling of the classic children’s story conjures up a vision of the Middle Ages as dark as anything imagined by the Brothers Grimm. Playing the piper, 60s folk troubadour Donovan leads a fine British cast that includes Michael Hordern, Donald Pleasence, Jack Wild and John Hurt.
After his wife dies in childbirth, a proud military man decides to bring up his new daughter as a son. Oscar (Catriona MacColl) is taught to be a soldier and when she comes of age is appointed as special guard to the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Christine Bohm), but as revolution threatens the life at court, Oscar finds her loyalties tested. A swashbuckling romance based on the popular Japanese manga series The Rose of Versailles.
(Once Upon A Time, 1970)
An enchanting, sometimes bizarre, musical fairytale about the king (Jean Marais) of a magical kingdom who promises his dying queen that if he marries again it will only be with someone more beautiful than her. Only one woman is more beautiful than the dead queen: her own daughter (Catherine Deneuve). So the king asks for her hand. Distraught, the young princess appeals to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig) for help.
Demy’s first English-language film is a beguiling mood piece set in Los Angeles about a listless young architect whose infatuation with an enigmatic French woman leads him to ‘The Model Shop’ where men pay to photograph their fantasies. Here he meets Lola, disillusioned and out of place, much like the film’s director at this time.
Marc Michel plays Roland Cassard, a restless young man kicking his heels in the port city of Nantes, whose life is turned around after a chance encounter with glamorous nightclub singer, Lola (Anouk Aimée). Stunningly shot in black and white CinemaScope by Raoul Coutard and memorably scored by Michel Legrand, Demy’s sparkling debut immediately established him as a cinematic poet with a singular vision.
Une chamber en ville
(A Room In Town, 1982)
Set in Nantes at a time of industrial unrest, Demy’s last great musical stars Richard Berry as a striking metal-worker torn between the love of his fiancée and the rebellious daughter (Domonique Sanda) of his upper-class landlady (Danielle Darrieux). Despite nine César nominations, it initially flopped at the box office but can now be appreciated for the daring tour de force that it is.
La Baie des anges
(Bay of Angels, 1963)
Rarely has the seductive allure of gambling been so accurately portrayed on screen.
Claude Mann plays a young bank clerk on a winning streak who becomes fatally attracted to a compulsive gambler while on vacation in Nice. Jeanne Moreau, in another brilliantly nuanced performance, plays the object of his obsession.
In the seaside town of Cherbourg, 17-year-old Genevieve dreams of marrying her sweetheart – garage-mechanic Guy; but when he is sent away to war leaving her pregnant, she is forced into the arms of another suitor. This wistful, romantic musical, in which every line of dialogue is sung and every rain-soaked location is a beautiful pastel shade, won the Grand Prix at the 1964 Cannes Film festival and made Demy, and his young star Catherine Deneuve, internationally famous.
Les Desmoiselles de Rochefort
(The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967)
In paying homage to the great Hollywood musicals of an earlier era, Demy created a masterpiece to stand alongside them. Real life sisters Catherine Deneueve and Francois Dorleac are ‘the young ladies’ of the title whose romantic fortunes are transformed when the travelling carnival arrives in town. Highlights include Michel Legrand’s infectous jazz-pop score, the exuberant choreography of Norman Maen and star turns from George Chakiris, Grover Dale, Danielle Darrieux and Gene Kelly.