One of 1960s French cinema’s greatest quandaries concerns Jacques Demy’s place amid his nouvelle vague contemporaries. Demy’s films, especially his first two features, embody the kind of simultaneous formal play and allusion-heavy diegesis that came to define the formative films of the movement. Lola, from 1961, isn’t only dedicated to Max Ophüls, but features 1953’s Return to Paradise, starring Gary Cooper, as the film that Roland (Marc Michel) borrows details from in order to explain his own life. Cooper died just two months after Lola’s French release, a coincidence that can’t help but doubly inform Demy’s tale of irretrievable time, lost in the aftermath of war and shifting economic geographies. Likewise, 1963’s Bay of Angels locates deterministic ends amid destabilized formal rigor, as Jean (Claude Mann) and Jackie (Jeanne Moreau) turn to chance, feeling, and luck through gambling to mend the indefatigable wounds inflicted by a postwar, bourgeois milieu. These two films, shot in black and white on comparatively low budgets, stand apart from what would become Demy’s cinematic aim: meticulously staged, elaborately colored musicals, straddling lines between pop opera, fairy tales, and Brechtian tragedy.
The shift to candy-colored musicals led Jean-Luc Godard, originally a proponent of Demy’s filmmaking, to denounce the apolitical, commercial components that he saw as belonging to the “quality of tradition,” something he and several of his Cahiers du Cinéma brethren vehemently rallied against. However, Demy’s marriage to Agnès Varda complicates matters, not least because Varda is perhaps the most political of the Left Bank filmmakers, further entwining Demy’s relationship to a kind of political filmmaking that Godard couldn’t locate on screen. Godard likely saw in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort images and sounds that confirmed an allegiance to American sensibilities that he wanted to shun completely in favor of an overtly politicized commitment to addressing contemporary economic matters. Yet Demy’s cinema, even in these extravagantly staged incarnations, acknowledges the zeitgeist of rampant social upheaval, only through more deceptively innocuous means. Demy uses match cuts in place of jump cuts, as epitomized in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by the space-defying leap from the street, with Geneviève (Catherine Denueve) clutched to the chest of Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), to the interior of a café, with the pair in the same position. These cuts aren’t placid gestures, but endemic to larger formal concerns articulated throughout Demy’s body of work.
Following Bay of Angels, Demy started to investigate the cinematic medium with a decidedly practical philosophy, engulfing an entirely sung musical within a staggeringly staged and symmetrical usage of mise-en-scène, one infatuated with the idea of transitions and articulating space and time as beholden to sound as much as image. Such is a characteristic that Godard irrevocably mistook regarding Demy and one which usefully illuminates many of the prolific director’s polymorphous proclivities. Demy, perhaps like no filmmaker before or after, is committed to infusing his cinema with the central question of fluidity and transition, which likely finds its most pronounced articulation in 1982’s often misunderstood Une Chambre en Ville. Demy’s most complicated film is engaged in several lines of intertextual inquiry, with not only political cinema of the past, but also Demy’s entire body of work. Guilbaud (Richard Berry) resembles Roland of Lola, outwardly a youthful politico with delusions of cosmopolitan import, but in practice no more ideologically formative than the bourgeois objects of his derision. Although more decidedly concerning political matters than any other film from Demy’s oeuvre, Une Chambre en Ville is entirely sung, imagining strike-informed street wars with the same template as an ephemeral love affair in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Nevertheless, Demy makes their merger concrete when the decidedly conservative Margot Langlois (Danielle Darrieux) explains how she hates the streets as much during wartime as carnival, which tellingly blends his seemingly separate worlds into the same space. That is, the visual exuberance on display in The Young Girls of Rochefort, though outwardly a musical trifle that doubles as a means to afford Demy the opportunity to pay homage to Gene Kelly, cannot be understood merely as such because of the potentially subversive cinematic space created by a carnivalesque mode of storytelling. Demy rarely veers comprehensively into satire, but his musicals defy the genre-based pleasures of set-piece attractions, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Une Chambre En Ville, because of their relentless excursion through cinematic space-time, making pleasure and politics inextricably bound. Such melding of form and content is absolutely the kind of revolutionary politics Godard found lacking, though his case would be better served for films like Donkey Skin and The Pied Piper, much more traditional musicals beholden to a “quality of tradition” template.
However, Donkey Skin eludes these trappings by turning its fairy-tale allegiances into a much darker but playfully perverse film akin to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, aligning abject sexual desire with cinema’s inherent propensity for jouissance. What else could result from a narrative where a king wishes to wed his only daughter? If the narrative parallels weren’t enough, Demy casts Jean Marais, effectively reprising his role from Cocteau’s film as the “beastly” king. These dots connect not as mere intertextual play (though Demy’s oeuvre could be intricately engaged exclusively under those aims), but as deliberate inquiries into the possibilities of transcending cinematic confines for sensorial satiation and the slippery lines between pleasure and pain inherent.
Perhaps these lines of inquiry also explain Demy’s largely female-driven films, often featuring recurring actresses and character types that consistently restate and reform Demy’s notion of an enclosed cinema’s capacity for extra-diegetic concerns. Catherine Deneuve’s recurring presence elucidates this best; with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg serving as Deneuve’s breakout role and given that Demy used her again in The Young Girls of Rochefort, Karl Marx’s explanation that history operates the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce is embodied by the tone of each film and its relevance to Deneuve’s presence. It’s as if Demy wants to replay certain scenarios, but with altered, though not completely separate, tones. Finally, for Donkey Skin, the lines between cinema, fantasy, and reality become almost completely blurred. With Deneuve playing both wife and daughter, the lecherous king’s gaze could surely be a stand-in for Demy’s own sexual desires, where the incestuous tinge of the diegesis parallels the actress/lover overlap intimated by the pair’s ongoing, working relationship.
The Criterion Collection’s dedication to properly presenting these six features is as extensive as any endeavor yet undertaken by the distributor since they started releasing DVDs in 1998. Lola, though a problematic transfer since the original negative has been forever lost, gleams in its stunning 2:35:1 image, with blacks as darkly saturated as Demy intended, while scratches have been minimized to almost imperceptible lengths. Some may quibble that digital restoration and, in some case, image reconstruction had to be used in order to eliminate debris, but the end result is so voluminous, one would be remiss to complain. Bay of Angels is equally pristine, with visible grain and minimal image deterioration. As good as the black-and-white films look, the color films are perhaps the true revelation. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort are so vibrant as to seem otherworldly, yet grain and in-camera effects retain the visual signifiers of the era. Donkey Skin and Une Chambre en Ville likewise look magnificent, with virtually no perceptible flaws in the color scheming or transfer. Sound is lossless across the films, though the 5.1 DTS-HD audio of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort are the standout tracks.
Criterion’s output is often jokingly referred to as "film school in a box," but The Essential Jacques Demy is no laughing matter. Excavating the archives for interviews that cover Demy, Agnès Varda, and numerous cast and crew members, this is a laundry list of extras that will take days, perhaps even weeks to properly sift through. Each film is given the red-carpet treatment, from Demy’s recollections about the production, to documentaries showcasing cast and crew recollection, to scholarly essays explaining Demy’s dense, intertextual oeuvre, to four of Demy’s short films. Any number of featurettes could be highlighted, but the standout is James Quandt’s hour-long visual essay entitled "Jacques Demy, A to Z." Quandt’s alphabet primarily explains Demy’s films through their homage-driven aims, citing Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, and Max Ophüls as formative influences. However, Quandt also uses letters to explore more thematic matters, such as the queer sensibilities within Demy’s characters and scenarios and more autobiographical matters, such as Demy’s relationship with Varda. Speaking of Varda, her fingerprints are found on nearly every disc; while speaking in a featurette or documentary is common, her 90-minute, 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy is the collection’s seventh feature, preserved and presented with the same care as Demy’s own films. Four of the films receive fascinating restoration featurettes, explaining how the transfers were conducted to provide technical excellence without sacrificing original intent. Finally, each film’s trailer has been provided, along with six excellent essays, one for each film, in the booklet.
Jacques Demy once said that his dream was to make 50 films belonging to the same world, with overlapping characters and reference points. With the positively oneiric The Essential Jacques Demy, the Criterion Collection comes as close to providing the resources for that fantasy as any cinephile could realistically hope.