Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The World of Jacques Demy: Juvenilia (1944-1959)

I recently acquired a set of box set containing the complete works of filmmaker Jacques Demy.  As I removed the plastic and began to peruse the set, it positively screamed "blog about me!"  (For the record, if you don't hear your DVD's talking to you, I assure you that they are, you just aren't listening correctly.  Otherwise I'd just be crazy, and that can't be right.)

In all seriousness, this set is really an ideal choice for a complete filmography review here at Spellbound.  First, it's just the right size.  Too small a set of movies and there's not enough material to merit a series, much less get any kind of comprehensive vision from watching them consecutively.  Too many films, and the project would be exhausting for blogger and reader alike.

Second, it's kind of a rare opportunity to be able to pick up a complete filmography in one go.  I don't know about you, but most filmmakers I'm interested in I end up picking up their movies in bits and pieces over weeks or months.  Sometimes it takes years to track down elusive films or wait for decent DVD releases.  This comprehensive set means that the only impediment to my progress will be my own laziness or distractability.

Finally, I am in the nice position of being just familiar enough with the work of Mr. Demy to be certain that I'll enjoy watching all his films and sharing them with you all, but not so familiar that I can't come to them with fresh eyes.

So I hope you'll join me for the next few weeks as we explore together the works of this remarkable filmmaker who has yet to receive his due regard here in the United States.


We start our discussion of the films of Jacques Demy with a look at six shorts he made prior to his first feature, 1961's Lola.

Le Pont de Mauves (1944)

Attaque Nocturne (1947-48)

La Ballerine (Date Unknown)
In 1990 Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnes Varda, was researching a documentary she planned to make on her late husband's childhood.  While visiting the house in which his family spent their summers during Demy's adolescence, she found a few of their old possessions still in the house's attic.  Remarkably, one of these items was an old box containing a few faded cardboard figures and some film, folded and brittle.  In the shape the film was in, it was impossible to even spool it for projection, but through frame by frame examination she was able to determine their contents.  What she'd found was three animated shorts Demy had made as a child.  The earliest was made when he was 11, the latest when he was 16.  Due to the films' condition it was not possible to restore them, so she and several associates went about the extraordinary process of recreating them using the cardboard figures from the box and the surviving frames as a guide.  Truly a labor of love.

As for the films themselves, they give clear indication that Demy was, quite simply, born to the cinema.  Even Le Pont de Mauves, far and away the crudest of the three, shows a remarkable eye for action and framing in its depiction of the bombing of a local bridge (this was made in the midst of the war, after all) that is shocking to see come from the marker of an eleven year old child.  The latter two show incredible development in the interim, as Demy has moved from hand-drawn cartoons to complicated stop-motion animation with elaborate sets and characters.

Les Horizons Morts (1951)
Les Horizons Morts is an amateur student film, and his first surviving live-action project.  The film depicts the chaos in a young man's mind as he contemplates a spurned romance, culminating ultimately in his suicide.  The narrative and performance are unremarkable, but we can clearly see Demy as a filmmaker emerge at even this early date.  From the first, he is already utterly confident, even daring, behind the camera as he makes the transition to live-action work.  The use of Dutch Angles, rapid editing, and jarring juxtapositions prefigure the work of his more famous contemporaries in the French New Wave and reveal a Demy that was far-more interested in looking forward as a filmmaker than paying homage to the past.

Le Sabotier du Val de Loire (1956)
Le Sabotier du Val de Loire (lit. The Clog-Maker of Loire Valley) is a far more polished, if considerably less audacious short than Les Horizons Morts.  Considerably more conventional in its framing and editing, this short documentary profiles a family in the Loire Valley as they face the deaths of friends and neighbors and go about daily routines that offer them little reward.  Interesting look at pastoral life in post-war France, but of little sustaining interest.

Le Bel Indifférent (1957)

Now we're talking.  Le Bel Indifférent, Demy's first color short, would not be more obviously his work had he scrawled his signature across every frame.  Bold splash of color, terrific use of its jazz score, and a well-developed, sympathetic heroine make this short instantly recognizable even to those only familiar with Demy's most famous works.  Based on a Cocteau play, it shows a woman experiencing something of a nervous breakdown in the face of her cheating husband's indifference to her pain and heartbreak.  Jeanne Allard would go on from this to a lengthy career in French Cinema working with Agnes Varda, Louis Malle and others.  But she begins here, managing to invest the role with both sincerity and theatricality.  Essential Demy.

Ars (1959)
Coming after Le Bel Indifférent, my first impression of Ars was that it was something of a step backwards, but in retrospect that's not really the case.  Certainly it feels older and quieter than the bold short that preceded it, but it is nevertheless innovative in its approach and clearly deeply felt.  It tells the story of John Vianney, now known as the patron saint of priests, and his work in the French parish of Ars in the early 19th century.  Rather than dramatize the saint's story, Demy narrates this tale of the transformative power of faith over contemporary footage of the town of Ars.  While the pace is slow, some of the editing is quite bold, and he uses the juxtaposition of image and word with wit and irony -- when thinking back over this short I found that it had said more than I'd heard in my initial viewing.

Next week we'll talk about Demy's first feature, Lola, and meet his first great collaborators in actress Anouk Aimée and, of course, composer Michel Legrand.  Join us won't you?

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