Jacques Demy  

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Jacques Demy (June 5, 1931October 27, 1990) was one of the most approachable filmmakers of the French New Wave. Uninterested in the formal experimentation of Alain Resnais, or the political agitation of Jean-Luc Godard, Demy instead created a self-contained fantasy world closer to that of François Truffaut, drawing on musicals, fairytales and the golden age of Hollywood.


After working with the animator Paul Grimault and the filmmaker Georges Rouquier, Demy directed his first feature film, Lola, in 1961, with Anouk Aimée playing the eponymous cabaret singer. The Demy's universe here emerges fully-fledged. Characters burst into song (courtesy of composer and lifelong Demy-collaborator Michel Legrand); iconic Hollywood imagery is lovingly appropriated (consider above all the opening scene, with the man in a white Stetson in the Cadillac, daringly set to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony); plot is dictated by the director's fascination with fate, and stock themes of chance encounters and long-lost love; and the setting, as with so many of Demy's films, is the French Atlantic coast of his childhood, specifically the seaport town of Nantes.

La Baie des Anges (The Bay of Angels, 1963), starring Jeanne Moreau, took the theme of fate further, with its story of love at the roulette tables.

Most impressive of all was his musical, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964). Although the subversion of established genres was a typically New Wave obsession (notably Godard's playful thriller-cum-sci-fi, Alphaville), Demy was unusual in actually recreating them literally. The whimsical concept — rare in musicals — of singing all the dialogue sets the tone for this tragedy of the everyday. The film also sees the emergence of Demy's trademark visual style: whereas Lola, filmed by Godard's cinematographer Raoul Coutard, has a New Wave black and white austerity, Les Parapluies is shot in saturated supercolour, with every tiny detail — neck-ties, wallpaper, even Catherine Deneuve's bleach-blonde hair — selected for maximum visual impact. Interestingly, the young man from Lola reappears here, marrying Deneuve: such reappearances are typical of Demy.

He never quite recaptured the brilliance of these first three films, although he was rarely dull. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), another Deneuve musical, has some of the best French songs of the period, and an engaging cameo from an aging Gene Kelly. Lola reappears in the unusually experimental Model Shop (1969), his first American film. Peau d'Âne (Donkey Skin, 1970) is a visually extravagant, if rather literal, interpretation of a fairytale, again with Deneuve.

Subsequent films are less highly regarded, but may well be due for reappraisal: David Thomson wrote about "the fascinating application of the operatic technique to an unusually dark story" in Une Chambre en ville (A room in town, 1982). After years of neglect, Demy's stock is on the up, and a restored Parapluies de Cherbourg was reissued to great acclaim in 1998.

Demy was the husband of fellow director Agnès Varda, whose Jacquot de Nantes was a loving account of Demy's childhood, and his life-long love of theatre and cinema.

Jacques Demy died in 1990 and was interred in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Montparnasse.

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