Although he was often lumped in with other filmmakers that came out of the critically beloved and still studied to death French New Wave, Jacques Demy was decidedly out of time with some of the contemporaries he was compared to. He was a spinner of just as many fun and fantastical yarns as he was of extremely prescient human dramas, sometimes overlapping to create what amounts to some of the best examples of mainstream blockbuster styled filmmaking for thinking adults.
From June 27th through July 20th, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will showcase the works of Demy in the appropriately titled retrospective Bitter/Sweet: The Joyous Cinema of Jacques Demy. Not as much a formalist as Francois Truffaut or Alain Resnais and not as playfully obtuse as Jean-Luc Godard, Demy excelled at creating genre films that could b easily accessible to audiences, but subverting the actual form within them to more subtle degrees.
In his masterwork musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Saturday, June 29th at 6:30pm) Demy proved to be incredibly adept at mimicking the beats and emotions of everyday life within the form of a modern day sing-songy musical. Equally indebted to Arthur Freed and Abel Gance, this multiple year spanning pseudo-romance between the daughter of an umbrella shop owner (a then 20 year old Catherine Denuve, marking her star-making appearance) and a young man about to go off to war (Nino Castenuovo). The pair love each other, but with her unplanned pregnancy and lack of a father figure in the child’s life standing in the way to traditional values, she’s forced to unhappily marry a well off jeweller. Upon the young man’s return to Paris, he finds himself almost adrift in a world he doesn’t recognize after only a few scant years.
Not only does Cherbourg work as one of the most moving (and often underrated and strangely less heralded) off-beat musical, it’s also one of the few examples of the genre that deal with universally identifiable themes in often gravely specific detail. There’s a fun playfulness and joyous nature to the film as a whole, but as it goes on the parallels between the reality of our own world and the fantasies of Demy’s are equally striking and gutting in equal measure. It builds towards a conflicted conclusion that almost gives the perfect example of the retrospective’s name.
Demy goes a bit more in line with his adoration for Freed than his contemporaries with his casting of American musical legend Gene Kelly in his second most widely recognized film The Young Girls of Rochefort (Sunday, June 30th, 6:00pm). A coming of age tale instead of a film about already established relationships under strain, the film regresses the age and worldly knowledge of it’s director in brilliant ways. Reuniting with composer Michel Legrand and Denuve – playing one half of the film’s sisterly duo – it’s the story of wanting to move out of a dead end town condensed to the timeline of a single weekend told through musical form. It’s the lesser of his two best known works, but worthy in its own right and brimming and sometimes subtly brooding with a youthful vigour that Cherbourg lacks.
Demy’s earlier films aren’t as particularly fun and fleet as his most beloved musicals, but noteworthy for different reasons. His first feature Lola (Thursday, June 27th, 6:30pm), often described as a musical without music, is an auspicious cinematic debut; an homage to famed director Max Ophuls that’s actually the closest to a traditional French New Wave film as he would attempt despite an abundance of feeling rather than intellectual posturing.
His Sophomore feature Bay of Angels (Friday, June 28th, 6:30pm) retains Lola’s slick black and white aesthetic, but little of the joy, telling a somewhat rote tale of one woman’s descent into gambling addiction. It certainly manages stylistic triumphs, but narratively the film is his wonkiest with Demy finding himself saved in a career best performance from leading lady Jeanne Morneau.
While his later day work isn’t as celebrated – often more politically charged fairy tales like Donkey Skin (Saturday, July 6th, 7:00pm), The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Sunday, July 7th, 6:00pm), and A Slightly Pregnant Man (Thursday, July 11th, 6:30pm) that he could never quite get a handle on – the film most worthy of a critical re-examination today is his almost atypically dry, but fascinating Model Shop (Friday, July 5th, 6:30pm). One of the best stories ever told about Los Angeles malaise, Demy’s only American feature supplants his titular character from Lola (played once again by Anouk Aimee) to the States, where she finds herself strangely downgraded from the high class prostitute she once was to that of a mere still photographed sex object. It’s not his most light-hearted effort, but it showed that Demy’s perceptive abilities could work in more restrained settings and romances instead of only in grand spectacles. Initially denigrated by critics upon its release in 1969 and admittedly suffering slightly from an outclassed Gary Lockwood as the leading man (subbing for Harrison Ford, who backed out), it’s certainly worth a look now, especially for modern audiences less acquainted and less possessive of the form Demy was best known for.
Demy passed away from AIDS in 1990 at the young age of 59, only two years after his swan song, the rarely screened and apparently not all that great Three Seats for the 26th (Saturday, July 20th, 1:00pm). Three documentaries about Demy made by his widow – Cleo from 5 to 7 director Agnes Varda, a cinematic heavyweight in her own right – will also screen to add context to the man’s life across the series. The Young Girls Turn 25 and The World of Jacques Demy will show in tandem on Tuesday, July 2nd at 9:00pm, the former a look back on one of Demy’s biggest successes and the latter sit downs with those who worked with him and knew him best. Jacquot de Nantes (Tuesday, July 9th, 9:00pm) was released in 1991 and produced just before Demy passed away. It’s the most boisterous, life affirming, and heartfelt of the bunch, really getting to the heart of what drove Demy to make films in the first place.
The Demy retrospective also comes with a sidebar series of Demy’s Favourites (running from July 2nd through August 20th and pre-titled Paradise Regained) stacked with classic films from other directors from the French New Wave to American Musicals to well regarded melodramas and mythologies that speak to the hodgepodge of influences that he imbued his work with. It’s possibly one of the best sidebar series ever created by anyone to be purposely lacking in focus. If you seriously haven’t seen Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Tuesday, July 2nd, 6:30pm), Godard’s sci-fi tinged noir Alphaville (Thursday, July 11th, 8:45pm), Nicholas Ray’s out there western Johnny Guitar (Saturday, August 17th, 5:00pm), or, heaven forbid, Singin’ in the Rain (Tuesday, July 9th, 6:30pm), now’s your chance.
The sidebar of eclectic tastes works splendidly when talking about some like Demy, who not only loved and excelled at making movies, but who was a filmmaker who was unafraid to show that he listened intently to those who came before him. He was a lover of cinema who made two of the greatest musicals the world has ever known. In turn he influenced a new generation of auteurs that have as wide ranging of tastes as he did. Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, anything ever made by Baz Luhrmann, and even the most recent Pixar short The Blue Umbrella can trace their lineage directly back to Demy. A study in Demy could serve as the fulcrum for a look at just how incestuous the nature of cinephilia really is.