The second World War has just ended. A 14-year-old boy in short trousers stares through a shop window at a Pathé Baby home-movie camera.
Jacques Demy is from a modest family: his father Raymond is a garage mechanic, his mother Marie-Lou a hairdresser. They live in the Atlantic coast town of Nantes, where guignol puppet shows, Disney movies and operettas illuminate "Jacquot's" childhood through the war. He wants that camera more than anything. So he barters his possessions for it.
Demy's initiation to film-making, and his eventual triumph over his father's objections, is recounted in Jacquot de Nantes , the feature-length docudrama that Demy's widow, director Agnès Varda, based on his diaries.
Demy's fortunes peaked with the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg , considered his masterpiece, in 1964. He made more than a dozen feature films between 1961 and 1988, before his work went out of fashion. He died of Aids in 1990.
In recent years Demy has enjoyed a comeback as an icon of New Wave cinema. Some 100,000 people attended Cinémathèque Française’s tribute to him last year. A Demy retrospective at the University of California, Berkeley, played to full houses last summer.
Now the 25th annual French Film Festival in Cork has joined in. Around the theme "The Sound of French Cinema", from March 2nd to 9th, the Alliance Française will screen eight Demy feature films, four of his shorts and three Varda documentaries about him.
Demy's films stand out for their tender, almost feminine sensibility. His young, restless characters long to escape from the provinces. They sometimes love, are often disappointed. Demy's passion for painting and music also marked his films, nine of which were scored by his "cinema brother", composer Michel Legrand.
At the Tours film festival in 1958, Demy met the New Wave directors François Truffaut, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Varda, whom he would marry in 1962. The young generation of film-makers frequented the Cinémathèque, and met for long discussions in the offices of Cahiers du Cinéma , the New Wave review that rebelled against "bourgeois cinema".
Encounters with Lola
Godard introduced Demy to his producer, George de Beauregard, who financed Demy's first feature film, Lola , released in 1961. Lola opens with a nod to Hollywood: a mystery man in white suit and stetson, whose identity will be revealed, plies the streets of Nantes in a white Cadillac. Anouk Aimée plays Lola, the long-legged cabaret singer with a black lace corset, feather boa, cigarette holder and black eye-liner who sleeps around while she waits for the return of the father of her boy.
Suitors flutter around Lola like moths: an American sailor, a long lost love called Roland, who later reappears in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to court Catherine Deneuve. Demy brought out the best in the actors he directed, and Aimée plays Lola's stubborn romanticism to perfection.
Lola was a leading art-house film in the 1960s, and some critics still consider it the best Demy film. Others prefer its 1968 sequel, Model Shop . Together, Demy and Aimée films attained cult status.
After the success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort – Demy's version of an MGM musical in 1960s mini-dresses and go-go-boots – Columbia Pictures were happy to produce Model Shop , shot in Los Angeles in 1968. Lola/Aimée reappears, older, sadder and posing for lonely amateur photographers in a sleazy shop to earn her air fare back to France.
Though shot only eight years after Lola , Model Shop has crossed the divide between the first and second half of the 20th century: from Old Europe to America; from black and white to colour; from Legrand's rapturous orchestral music to the rock band Spirit; from against-all- the-odds romanticisim to disillusionment.
Demy is a master at portraying time and place, never more so than in Model Shop . He loves LA as only a French man can. The camera lingers over its boulevards, parking lots, drugstores, supermarkets, oil derricks and beach houses. "Jacques films the city as if it were a character," notes Agnès's daughter Rosalie Varda-Demy, who is in charge of Demy's legacy at their Ciné-Tamaris production house.
George, the male lead in Model Shop , is an unemployed architect. In the space of 24 hours, he dumps his ambitious aspiring actor girlfriend, falls in love with Lola and receives his draft notice for the Vietnam war. This being Los Angeles, George is also trying to scrape together the money to hang on to his snazzy sports car, which is being repossessed. He and Lola are two lost souls who briefly comfort one another.
Demy desperately wanted to make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg after Lola . In a 1986 interview with the director and film critic Said Ould-Khelifa, he recounted that he and producer Mag Bodard hoped to raise money in Cannes. "The festival was ending and no one invested in the film; nobody believed in it," said Demy.
"I'll take you to the casino and we'll win the money to make the film," joked Bodard. "It was the first time I went into a casino," Demy recalled. "It gave me the idea for Bay of Angels . When I got back to Paris, I wrote the screenplay in two weeks."
In Demy's second film, Jeanne Moreau stars as Jackie, a platinum-blonde divorcee who is addicted to gambling. "Gambling is my religion," she tells Jean, the bored young banker who becomes her accomplice at the roulette table. "I don't love money; if I did, I wouldn't squander it." With its haunting, glissando theme by Legrand and vistas of the Côte d'Azur, Bay of Angels is the definitive gambling movie.
Rosalie Varda-Demy will present The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the opening of the Cork festival on Sunday evening. Initially, the sung narrative of the film can be jarring. Brilliant Technicolour wallpaper and decor – influenced by Matisse and pop art – take one back in time. Then the sugary sweetness turns dramatic, as handsome garage mechanic Guy is drafted and sent to the war in Algeria, leaving his pregnant fiancee Geneviève, played by Catherine Deneuve, to the tune of Legrand's theme song, I Will Wait for You .
Distributors told Demy "you mustn't use the word 'Algeria' – it's too dangerous", he recalled later. " Umbrellas is a film against war, against absence, against everything one hates, which destroys happiness." The film , re leased 50 years ago this month, made Deneuve a star. It won the Louis-Delluc prize, the Palme d'Or in Cannes and five Oscar nominations.
Had it not been for Agnès Varda, Demy’s oeuvre might have been consigned to film history. “When Jacques died, his films were considered old-fashioned, silly,” says Varda-Demy. Agnès channelled her grief at Demy’s death into renewing his work and reputation, undertaking the laborious process of restoring fading films, converting them to digital format and back into film for French archives.
Their marriage had not been a conventional one, but Varda plunged herself into the work of her late husband. “It was a generous labour of love, for the man of her life,” says Varda-Demy. “We’ve made his films accessible to a new generation.”