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In the land of super-serious French New Wave filmmakers, there was an oasis of music named Jacques Demy. Fifty years after Jean-Luc Godard, Fancois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and other directors changed the shape of cinema, Demy (1931-1990) isn't quite as well known as his contemporaries. He was so drastically different, even when compared to his wife Varda. His best known films burst onto the screen like the Technicolor dreamscapes of Hollywood he loved so much. Demy created a world of his own, from his debut feature Lola (1961) onwards, often recalling his past characters in subsequent movies.
In 1964, Demy changed the musical landscape with his third and most acclaimed film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluis de Cherbourg). The 90-minute film has no dialogue – every line is delivered in song, set to the beat of a toe-tapping Michel Legrand score. It is the very definition of a perfect marriage between song and image.
Demy ditches Paris for Cherbourg, and replaces the 1960s with the late 1950s. However, he doesn't completely reject the seriousness of dire situations, something he had in common with other New Wavers. Even though Cherbourg is a colorful fantasy, the plot follows a tragic romance.
The beautiful Catherine Deneuve is Genevieve, an umbrella shopowner's daughter who falls in love with mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuevo), only to learn that he is about to start his military service. Her mother (Anne Vernon) thinks that this is just a fleeting romance and sets her up with a wealthy jeweler Roland (Marc Michel – playing the same role he had in Lola). Guy and Genevieve grow apart while he is serving the military, but true love never dies, even if we have to move on with our lives.
Umbrellas is a truly cherished movie and has been so since it came out in 1964 and won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'or. That's for a good reason. While the all-singing nature of the film may be hard to get used to (especially for English-speaking audiences relying on subtitles), it's easy to get wrapped up in it with such wonderful music. Legrand and Demy were like the Williams and Spielberg of their day, with a perfect understanding of how the music should be used to keep the story moving. It doesn't even feel like a gimmick, as if this is the only way for Demy to tell this story. Obviously, the beauty of the French language helps immensely.
It took Demy three years to put together his next film, but fans of Umbrellas must have thought it was worth the wait. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort ) was not only a worthy companion, again starring Deneuve, but an even better film. Demy and Legrand didn't go completely all-singing, but they might as well have. The dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and is almost pointless. All the major plot points happen in song and any time the characters aren't singing, you can't help bet wonder when they will start singing again.
Young Girls isn't so much a film, but more of a snapshot of Rochefort, where twins Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Denevue's real sister Francoise Dorleac) have a music school and are hopelessly searching for their dream man and a way to out of the town. A fair arrives, bringing Honda motorcycle salesmen Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), who might be their ticket to Paris. Of course, there's other characters who fill Demy's vision of Rochefort and they all have one thing in common. They're all hopeless romantics.
While Umbrellas is still obviously French, even with some Hollywood influences, Young Girls more fully embraces the Hollywood musical. Just having Gene Kelly make a cameo wasn't enough for Demy, who got Kelly to dance with Dorleac more than once. Chakiris (of West Side Story fame) and Dale (who can be spotted in The Unsinkable Molly Brown) also bring in the Hollywood flavor.
It's like Demy was building on the foundation Vincente Minelli and other MGM directors had laid in the 1950s, but even they had been ignoring by the '60s. At that time, Hollywood was obsessed with Broadway musical adaptations, but Demy provides us with a musical that is completely cinematic. Young Girls, which still does retain the French flavor of near-misses and tragedy, could not exist in any other medium.
So, if Umbrellas is all-singing, then Young Girls is all-dancing. There's no moment in the film where characters are just standing and talking. They are always moving. Even when there's no song, we can see residents of Rochefort dancing in the streets. Demy offers no explanation for it, but one isn't needed. The story may be realistic, but this is a pure visual stylized feast for the eye.
Demy obviously kept making movies after Umbrellas and Young Girls, a few of which are included in the new Criterion Collection box set, but he never reached the level of international acclaim that these films brought him. These two films proved that the musical wasn't just an American art form. Going back to Rene Clair's films of the early 1930s, the French made great ones too and Demy's masterpieces are the jewels in their crown. Now, excuse me while I go watch Denevue and Dorleac dance to “A Pair of Twins.”
image courtesy of INFphoto.com