The Cuckoo Clock is an ongoing column that looks back upon the films and filmmakers of yesterday. It reflects on the themes and artistry of bygone, but not forgotten, eras in filmmaking. The Musicals of Jacques Demy is our first entry within the column.
On June 5, 1931, Jacques Demy was born with music in his ears. His dazzling films did not, perhaps, have the gritty realism of some of his La Nouvelle Vague contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard, but instead he left a legacy of fantasy and magic, and most importantly of song.
Demy developed a passion for cinema at an early age. In an interview, he cited hundreds of viewings of the early Chaplin short films. When he grew tired of these, he began to seek a creative outlet of his own. At age 9, young Jacques acquired a roll of film and hand drew his first short film. Though I’m certain he would’ve changed the face of cinema even relying on tedious animations, at 13 he decided to take the next technological leap, and bought his first camera. He would travel frequently to the nearby French town of Nantes to view movies, and the town would become an inspiration for many of his greatest films.
Young Demy was first brought into the world of filmmaking through animation in working with Paul Grimault, then through work with documentarian Georges Rouquier. He began to make his own short films and soon became enamored and heavily influenced by the works of filmmakers like Cocteau, Bresson, and Ophuls. It was the latter to whom he would dedicate his first feature film.
Lola is not, in any true sense of the word, a musical. Yet, it is hard not to see how this film impacted the musicals that Demy would one day be known for. Aside from a small song worked into the plot, it more so has the feel of a Demy musical. Telling the story of Lola (Anouk Aimee), a young cabaret dancer taking care of her son, the film introduced the world to a number of themes that would return time and time again throughout Demy’s career as a filmmaker. In fact, several of the characters would even go on to make significant appearances in later Demy films. Demy liked to reintroduce familiar characters, and he would reuse Lola’s main male protagonist, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the character of Lola herself in his Hollywood film Model Shop.
Lola tells a number of stories focusing around a large cast of characters whose lives continue to intersect. Demy would reuse this intertwined form of plot structure in The Young Girls of Rochefort. It was also the first time that Demy used the character archetype of the beautiful, lonely, older widow who was raising her child. He featured characters that fit this description in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Une Chambre en Ville as well. He also introduced the character of a young soldier who temporarily entered the lives of the characters while on duty. This character’s spirit would be echoed in The Young Girls of Rochefort.
In the early 60s, Demy came up with an idea. He concocted a film about a pair of young lovers and the plan was to shoot it in color and to have the dialogue be entirely sung. Naturally, this scheme did not play well with French studios. As he pitched the idea, a few producers were intrigued by the plot but refused to take on the project unless he shot in black and white and dropped the musical element. However, Demy was not to be deterred. Luckily, he did find a suitor, and in 1964 movie screens were graced with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Audiences were dazzled by this colorful and operatic tale, and the film still lives on as one of Demy’s crowning achievements and holds a place among the pantheon of great films. Its voice still echoes today as it was among the main inspirations for the 2016 film La La Land. Damien Chazelle, who won the Oscar for Best Director for the film, screened it for his cast and crew early in the filming process.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is somehow a tragic romance with a happy ending. The bittersweet beauty of its final moments creates one of the most memorable finales in film history. Its arc perfectly encapsulates the feeling of young love; it perfectly romanticizes the feeling of being a love struck teenager and then reminds the audience that even the deepest love is fragile. It is a movie that can bring both joy and tears on every last viewing.
Its musical score by Michel Legrand is impressive, not only in the pure merits of the compositions, but also in the incredible incorporation of the dialogue. Legrand also worked with Demy on Lola, though he was not the first choice for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Demy had at first lobbied for American music producer Quincy Jones. However, I’d hardly say that he settled for Legrand, as the operatic score of the film is iconic. The lovers’ ballad in particular, I Will Wait For You, has had a number of adaptations including several American covers with original English lyrics assigned to it. The film was also his first collaboration with Catherine Deneuve, an actress who Demy showed a particular fondness for.
While The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an incredible achievement, after its release Demy was still itching to create a true Hollywood style musical. He had idolized the work of American musical icons like Gene Kelly and yearned to create a broad spectacle like those that Kelly had starred in. And thus, The Young Girls of Rochefort was conceived. Demy even cast Gene Kelly in a role in the film.
The Young Girls of Rochefort returns to the format of Lola, telling a fractured story of many different characters whose fates intertwine. Demy builds incredible tension as he reveals romantic relationships between the characters that they themselves have not yet discovered and leaves the viewer to wait for their paths to cross. To star in the film as the titular young girls, Demy cast a pair of sisters. He brought back Deneuve from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and added her sister Francoise Dorleac to the cast. Sadly, this was one of Dorleac’s final film appearances. The actress died tragically in a car wreck in 1967, the year The Young Girls of Rochefort was released, at the age of 25. She was a promising French actress of the time, appearing in the films of François Truffaut and Roman Polanski among others.
Where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a gorgeous tragic romance, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a masterpiece in a very different way. It is fun, exciting, and upbeat. What the two share in common is their radiant colors and delightful music. The Young Girls of Rochefort is a celebration of the musical form and an optimistic romance through and through. Still, it does not shy away from the dark and controversial undertones that Demy so adored.
After The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy made a single stop in Hollywood to make Model Shop, a follow-up to Lola. The film is neither a musical nor particularly noteworthy, but one peculiar anecdote did emerge from its making. When Demy arrived in Hollywood, he wanted to find a young, inexperienced actor to cast opposite Anouk Aimee. Though the studio ultimately pushed him into going with Gary Lockwood, he was first introduced to a then unknown actor who he wanted to cast in the role: Harrison Ford. Though he was unable to cast Ford in the film, Demy and his wife, director Agnes Varda, befriended Ford and his family.
When he returned to France, Demy began work on Donkey Skin, another musical collaboration with Catherine Deneuve. It would be the first of two consecutive musical fairy tale films, the second being The Pied Piper. However, Donkey Skin is the one Demy is remembered for. Donkey Skin is a movie that can be enjoyed by children and adults, though it does, in typically Demy fashion, have a flair of the controversial as incest is a major point of contention in the movie. Still, it creates perhaps Demy’s most magical and enchanting world.
Donkey Skin breaks from all expectations of a fantasy world as it is indecisively dark and then light-hearted. It refuses to specify what realm of existence it occupies, instead bounding carelessly from magic to realism. It is not sloppy, it is simply free of all boundaries. It was probably the most ambitious Demy ever achieved in terms of special effects, and it features Catherine Deneuve at her most beautiful. It is not Demy’s masterpiece, but it is extraordinarily original and not to be missed.
After his fantasy duo, Demy broke from the musical genre for a little while before returning with Une Chambre En Ville. Like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the dialogue is delivered entirely in song. It tells a tragic tale of romance in the backdrop of a massive labor strike. Une Chambre En Ville is almost Shakespearian, and certainly has elements of Romeo and Juliet surrounding its central romance. Sadly, Michel Legrand did not do the music for the film, and the songs are fine but not as memorable as the Legrand collaborations. While the movie is entertaining, it doesn’t offer the same magic of Demy’s other movies, and has certain scenes that unfold more like a stageplay than a movie. It lacks the cinematic flair of Demy’s masterpieces.
In 1985, Demy directed Parking. It is a musical remake of Jean Cocteau’s classic film Orpheus, set in the 80s musical scene. It isn’t a true musical, particularly by Demy’s typical definitions, but it heavily utilizes 80s rock music given the setting. The project was an interesting idea, but was ultimately a massive failure and hasn’t been well reflected on since.
Demy’s final effort in the director’s chair was Three Seats for the 26th in 1988. The film stars Yves Montand, a French actor and singer, playing himself in a semi-biographical role. The film revives some of that magical style that Demy immortalized in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, but is mostly forgettable beyond the fact that it was Demy’s final film. Sadly, Demy would never create another masterpiece.
With much sadness, Jacques Demy succumbed to AIDS and died in 1990 at the young age of 59. Who knows what other fantasies he might’ve brought us had he lived on. Who knows what other dreams he might sparked with his musical wonders. Though the latter half of Demy’s career was not as fruitful as the first, the magic never left the man. He continued to create, and his music rings on for audiences to this day.
“Among the dead people, the most loved is Jacques Demy”