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A Song in His Heart

'The Essential Jacques Demy' anthologizes the French New Wave's chief romantic

By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Aug. 15, 2014

A Song in His Heart

Whether or not Jacques Demy lumps in with the French New Wave – Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut – remains immaterial. As annotated in the hourlong Demy, A-Z, one of four substantive documentaries packaged in The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion Collection, $124.95), his homages to the roots of the movement (Bresson, Cocteau, Ophüls, Renais) brace him unto a cinematic renaissance that today parallels another national pop-art trademark, Impressionism. In European black-and-white alternately searing and crème puff, Demy's first features, 1961's Lola, and Bay of Angels two years later, flicker luminous, natural light jewels of the genre.

Meticulously color-coded ahead of and at the height of psychedelia, Demy's next films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) yielded, respectively, a Cannes Grand Prize and outright derision ("a naive and frivolous confectioner"). Jean-Luc Godard played a pivotal role in getting Demy's debut made, but later labeled his peer and onetime intimate a sellout. As repudiated time and again over this 6-film, 7-DVD/6-Blu-ray trove, Demy's poetic surrealism ultimately transcends Le Nouvelle Vague by advancing French classicism like Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise into the avant-garde.

Academy Award nominations for best score accompanied Cherbourg and Rochefort, the former groundbreaking for its operatic conceit of sung dialogue, and the latter high-kicking a more traditional musical while dipping in and out of song as if life were Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and Carmen all at once. Fusing singing and script down to the very last note alongside genius composer Michel Legrand, Demy's heartbreaker about a wartime teen pregnancy annotated hanky moments into Umbrellas' sheet music ("I wanted to make people cry – to think of their first love"). The pair then countered that by hoping moviegoers would exit the theatre dancing after Rochefort – also starring Catherine Deneuve, this time with her older sister Françoise Dorléac, who was killed in a car accident right after principal shooting. The duo's soundtrack to Deneuve's divine Donkey Skin (1970) – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory meets Game of Thrones – matches its predecessors as stand-alone audio cinema.

In fact, The Essential Jacques Demy substantially updates Koch Lorber's estate-approved, 2003 issue of Donkey Skin, including its magic supplement of the illustrated history of Charles Perrault's twisted fairy-tale cousin to his Sleeping Beauty. Blue dwarves, red horses, an old hag who spits frogs, and the titular beast of burden excreting treasure-chest compost, this lysergic lark maintains one of Deneuve's funnest and funniest roles. Bowing to Jean Cocteau's phantasmagoric Beauty and the Beast by casting Jean Marais as a widowed king wanting to wed his own daughter, its DIY fantasy of genuine castles and medieval villages peaks with the high-watt "Cake Song," three cinematically fetishistic minutes of Deneuve worship.

Sister Act: Catherine Deneuve (l) and her late sister Françoise Dorléac in <i>The Young Girls of Rochefort</i>
Sister Act: Catherine Deneuve (l) and her late sister Françoise Dorléac in The Young Girls of Rochefort

Even then, the blindside takeaway to this bonus-encrusted box set – overseen by Demy's widow and New Wave icon Agnès Varda – reveals itself in Demy's second full-length, Bay of Angels from 1963. Where Anouk Aimée confection Lola suffers from New Wave's soft-focus plotting, its follow-up doubles down as the Leaving Las Vegas of its day, a gambler's descent sans the alcoholism but nonetheless teetering on Days of Wine and Roses-like addiction horror. Claude Mann (uncannily Kevin Costner) is a revelation, while Jeanne Moreau, much as in her turn in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, proves herself the unrivaled monarch of the French film revolution.

"I've been the studios' mild-mannered boy up until now," says Demy in a painful TV interview from the Bay of Angels set. "That's over now. I need something else."

A late-game songbook from 1982, symphonic tragedy Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town), completes the immersion, although prize Varda doc The World of Jacques Demy demands compilation of even noble Demy failures A Slightly Pregnant Man (his final Deneuve collab, stolen by her paramour Marcello Mastroianni), Hollywood flop Model Shop (a Lola riff starring Aimée), and final suite Three Seats for the 26th, sole musical from actor/crooner Yves Montand.

Despite emancipated, mostly female characters that reappear and interlock throughout his oeuvre in quasi-parallel with pilgrimages to his regions of origin, the director never regained the post-Umbrellas box office clout that resulted in big-budget excursions The Young Girls of Rochefort and Donkey Skin – and thus wasted the last decade of his life struggling to raise capital. As revealed only in Varda's visual, 2008 autobiography The Beaches of Agnès, Jacques Demy died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 59. His precious cache of celluloid sings eternally.

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