Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Pacific Film Archive Presents the Work of Jacques Demy By JUSTIN DeFREITAS

Friday March 31, 2006

Jacques Demy has taken a lot of hits over the years. He was a man who attempted to make movies for everyone, yet he was never what people wanted him to be. He wasn’t political enough, wasn’t edgy enough, wasn’t rebellious enough. 

But his critics were often missing the point. Demy did not aspire to be political, edgy or rebellious. He did not attempt to portray characters burdened with the world’s problems. He didn’t look for timely themes, didn’t try to capture a moment in history. Demy was more concerned with the timeless themes of love, happiness and heartache; he merely wanted to show people swept up in the joy and agony of love.  

Pacific Film Archive is seeking to rectify these misconceptions with “The Enchanting World of Jacques Demy,” a series of five of his films, as well as Jacquot, a documentary about the director made by his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda. The series began Thursday and runs through Sunday.  

Demy’s first film, Lola, was greeted with praise by his contemporaries. Lola embodied so much of what the French New Wave embraced: young French people in modern, realistic locales, facing real-life dilemmas, sprinkled with references to American movies and culture. 

The New Wave was about aesthetics and attitude; its characters shared a certain disaffection with or alienation from their surroundings. Demy’s work shares the referential nature of the New Wave; his films are steeped in Hollywood lore and mannerisms, but he doesn’t share the New Wave’s alienation and rebelliousness. For while Demy’s characters may become restless and disenchanted with their surroundings, all it takes is a little affection from the opposite sex to rekindle their excitement with the world—much too bourgeois for the New Wave. 

Lola’s male lead, Roland (Marc Michel), is lost and wandering through life, as are his counterparts in such New Wave classics as Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Band of Outsiders. But there is no grand meaning or sociological statement behind Roland’s predicament—he’s just lazy. And lonely. He wanders from job to job and cafe to cafe, but he’s not looking for a religion, a political cause, or for fulfillment through work. Nor is he searching for identity, really. He is simply looking for love. And yes, it is through companionship that he hopes to find meaning and fulfillment, but this is almost an afterthought; Roland more or less just wants to be happy. 

Though Lola has all the trappings of the New Wave, it is at odds with the movement in that its story is at its root a simple one. Demy is not trying to make a grand statement, he is only trying to make a movie about love lost, found and lost again. 

Demy was also at odds with the political motivations of the Left Bank school of thought, of which Varda was a cornerstone. Once again, somewhat by chance, he had become associated with a school of filmmaking to whose tenets he did not adhere, and this misunderstanding of his work and his aspirations again led to criticism. His films are not about politics; they are about love, romance, dreams and failure, all wrapped up in a layer of escapism.  

And this informs one of the central premises behind Demy’s work: that pain and loss go down better with a layer of frosting. His films are light, fluffy confections of infectious music, swirling emotions and bright, lovely faces surrounded by bright, lovely colors. 

The actors in Demy’s films are young, beautiful and full of dreams and longing, and it is difficult not to fall for them. The women—from Anouk Aimée’s Lola to Catherine Deneuve’s Genevieve to Ellen Farner’s Madeleine and even Annie Dupéroux’s precocious 14-year-old Cécile—are without fail lovely and engaging and easily draw empathy from the audience. 

Unlike Godard’s heroines, who often have a certain detached aura, Demy’s women have more in common with the flushed-faced excitable young belles of Hollywood’s heyday. Demy’s actresses evince the fresh, bubbly wholesomeness of the Hollywood starlets of the ‘40s and ‘50s while managing to convey much of the moodiness, sultriness and complexity of America’s leading ladies of the ‘20s and ‘30s. 

The men likewise are compelling, though Roland at times seems a bit too bland to be fully engaging. Guy on the other hand, in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with his gentle, soulful eyes and all-around good-guy qualities, is a sympathetic character from the start. 

In 1967 Demy pursued Gene Kelly as star and choreographer for The Young Girls of Rochefort. Kelly, already in his mid-50s, was well past his song-and-dance prime and was working primarily as a director. Bringing him back in front of the camera in a French musical may have seemed like an odd decision at the time, but it was a perfectly logical extension of Demy’s work. Demy was a great admirer of Hollywood’s golden age of musicals, and Kelly especially embodied much of the creative spirit Demy sought for his films.  

Check out Kelly’s musicals of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and you can see the influence they had on Demy. Kelly was fascinated with dreams and fantasy, placing in each of his great films extended show-stopping dream sequences full of color, dance and romance. On The Town features a balletic demonstration of love and longing; An American in Paris shows the whirlwind of emotions of a couple in love amid the joy and glamor of Gay Paree; and Singin’ in the Rain features an episodic sequence filled with bright, splashy colors as his Don Lockwood character goes from rags to riches to lovelorn in 10 minutes of highly stylized fantasy.  

There is a satisfying thread that runs through the PFA series. Umbrellas, strong on its own merits, is all the more engaging when you have seen Lola, which gives you the full import of the character of Roland—his wandering spirit, his lost love, and all the pain and shiftlessness that leads him to Genevieve and to the profession of diamond-selling. (You’ll have to rent Lola though; it screened at PFA on Thursday.) And Model Shop likewise gives the audience a chance to follow up on Lola’s title character, catching up with her after she has left France and made her way to Los Angeles.  

To see these films together makes clear what so many of Demy’s critics missed: that he was in fact a filmmaker of great originality and integrity. He may not have been the director some wanted him to be, but he stayed true to his vision, making simple, emotional movies about simple, emotional people, regardless of the politics, trends and preferences of his era. 


The Enchanting World of  

Jacques Demy 



Bay of Angels 

Friday, 7 p.m. 


Model Shop 

Friday, 8:45 p.m. 


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg  

Saturday, 6:30 p.m. 



Saturday, 8:30 p.m. 


The Young Girls of Rochefort 

Sunday, 3 p.m.  

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way.