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THE ESSENTIAL JACQUES DEMY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen and Michael Jacobson

Director:  Jacques Demy
Audio:  Various
Video:  Various
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  573 Minutes
Release Date:  July 22, 2014

"Mais mon amour, ne me quittez pas!"

Films ****

When we think about the French New Wave, usually the names Godard or Truffaut spring to mind.  Not too many people would remember Jacques Demy.  Furthermore, when we remember directors of great musicals, we think about a Vincent Minnelli or a Robert Wise.  More than a few eyebrows would raise if we mentioned a French New Wave director.  And yet, over the span of a decade, Jacques Demy, very much a member of the French New Wave, created musicals which compare favorably with the best that Hollywood had to offer during its golden age of musicals.

Of course, Demy made more than just musicals...his films created emotional, real worlds that included even fairy tales like Donkey Skin.  The Essential Jacques Demy, a remarkable set of 6 Blu-rays and 7 DVDs, encompasses six of his most memorable and beloved works of art.

Of the six, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (a.k.a. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is the most widely known and arguably the greatest.  The film became an international fairytale sensation upon its initial release, winning the Grand Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and earning five Academy Award nominations.  It was celebrated for its striking use of colors as well as its haunting and unforgettable melodies.  The film also propelled its young female lead, Catherine Deneuve, to international stardom, and she would later appear in Demy's other musicals as well.

 
But with the passage of time, the film vanished from the public's eye.  By the 1970's, the world was no longer receptive to fanciful musicals.  The genre, save for a few sporadic entries over the years, disappeared.  To add insult to injury, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's vibrant colors were apparently gone forever.  The film had been photographed using Eastmancolor film stock, which had a terrible reputation for fading badly, and the original negative was now damaged beyond repair.  The film's remaining prints, after years of neglect, were also so faded that the film was considered beyond any hope of restoration.  Thus, the film was "lost," its once-brilliant luster surviving only in memory.
 
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this tale.  Demy had foreseen his film's inevitable deterioration.  He had archived alternate monochromatic negatives using a sturdier film stock; these, when combined, could recreate the film's original colors (much as in the Technicolor three-color process).  After Demy's death in 1990, his widow, Agnes Varda (herself a New Wave director), spear-headed an effort to restore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to its former luminescence using the alternate negatives.  Finally, a restored version of the film was completed and re-released internationally in 1996 to overwhelming critical praise.  Once again, generations of film-goers could now experience one of the world's loveliest musicals as it was intended to be seen.
 
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is different from most other musicals in that the entire film is sung - dialogue, songs, and all.  While this is a common practice in operas (where the dialogue is sung via recitatives), it is quite rare in movie musicals.  The strategy works well in this film, partially due to Demy's skillful direction and partially due to the vast charm of the main characters, Genevieve (Deneuve) and Guy (Castelnuovo). 
 
As with most musicals, this film is a love story, but it is decidedly more mature than many of its Hollywood musical counterparts.  The themes of love versus duty are handled realistically in this film, and not always to the happiness of the characters.  Yet it is this very quality that brings so much emotional resonance to the story and is one of the reasons why the film was so celebrated in its day and so very much a part of the French New Wave. 

The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy's second musical foray, is in essence an homage to the whimsical and fluffy-light MGM musicals of the wartime era, particularly of the popular Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "let's put on a show" variant.  The film tells of one enchanted weekend in the lives of two young sisters living in the coastal city of Rochefort.  Deneuve plays Delphine, a talented, young dancer who conducts regular ballet classes with her sister, Solange (Dorléac), an aspiring composer.  From their studio classroom, they can see the entire town bubbling with excitement, for it is the weekend of La fête de la mer (the Sea Festival).  There will be games, songs, and exhibitions galore, with the grand centerpiece of the festivities being the carnival.

As such, the film opens with an ensemble dance that marks the arrival of this traveling carnival into town.  The carnival members cavort along the outskirts of town, and upon reaching Rochefort, they dance some more.  The ringmaster of this troupe, Etienne, is played by none other than George Chakiris, familiar to musical fans as Bernardo, the Puerto Rican leader of the Sharks in West Side Story.  One almost expects a rousing chorus of "America" from him at any given moment, but while Chakiris doesn't sing any Bernstein tunes here, he still dances up a storm.  Etienne and his sidekick, Bill (Grover Dale), set up their carnival and then go to a local cafe, where they announce their arrival to the shop-keeper with their theme song "Nous voyageons de ville en ville" (We Travel from Town to Town).

The bemused shop-keeper, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), just happens to also the mother of Delphine and Solange.  She, too, sings her own theme song in she reminisces about her daughters' long-lost father.  This love theme will be reiterated by a new music shop-keeper in town, a Simon Dame, as he sadly recalls a woman he loved once a long time ago.  Coincidence?  Of course not!  Coincidences don't exist in musicals!

There are actually two more love themes, one for each of the daughters.  Delphine will sing of her dream of meeting her ideal man one day.  The theme is repeated by a young local sailor, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who is an aspiring painter and sings of a portrait he painted of his ideal woman, someone he once glimpsed from afar.  It should not be too surprising to learn that this portrait, currently on sale at a local art shop, bears a remarkable resemblance to Delphine!

The final love theme is Solange's.  It is actually the score to her new piano composition, which she hopes will gain her some recognition.  And, indeed, her music is noticed by a passing composer, Andy Miller, who is in town visiting a friend.  This, of course, leads us to the best casting surprise in the film - the composer, Andy Miller, is played by none other than that Hollywood musical icon, Gene Kelly!  Kelly sings and dances as though he had just stepped off of the soundstage for An American in Paris, and it is still a delight to see this MGM star displaying his musical talents once more!

If you want earlier works, and to see that Demy was just as much a visual master of black and white as he was color, the early offerings Lola, a tale of dual unrequited loves, and Bay of Angels, a semi-noir take on a pair of gamblers, will fit the bill nicely.  Fast forward twelve years, and check out the multi-Cesar nominated Une Chambre en Ville, a movie that showed Demy just as masterful in the 80s as he was in the 60s!

This is a magical and comprehensive look at one director whose sense of style and emotion earned him a spot separate from his fellow New Wave creators.  These films are lovely, accessible, rich in artistic value but engaging in story.

Video ****

Demy and Criterion are a match made in heaven; the care taken in presenting these wonderful movies in high definition is glowing.  The black and white offerings are clean, crisp and clear, and the color ones?  Well, I may have never wanted so badly to climb into my screen and become a part of the world I was seeing.  I'm almost grateful these films are pre-3D, because they might have just become my alternative reality.  These are gorgeous offerings.

Audio ***1/2

The musicals fair best, as they are offered with uncompressed 5.1 soundtracks that really bring the sound to life.  Other films have either 2.0 surround tracks or PCM mono (Lola and Bay of Angels).  All come through cleanly, with fair dynamic range and tremendous music (even in the earlier offerings).

Features ****

The extras are plentiful, and spread out over the discs...hope I don't miss anything:

• Two documentaries by filmmaker Agnès Varda: The World of Jacques Demy (1995) and The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993)
• Four short films by director Jacques Demy: Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)
• Jacques Demy A to Z, a new visual essay by film critic James Quandt
• Two archival interviews from French television with Demy and composer Michel Legrand, one on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the other on The Young Girls of Rochefort
• French television interview from 1962 with actor Jeanne Moreau on the set of Bay of Angels
• Once Upon a Time . . . “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary
• French television program about the making of Donkey Skin
• “Donkey Skin” Illustrated, a video program on the many versions of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale
• “Donkey Skin” and the Thinkers, a video program on the themes of the film, featuring critic Camille Tabouley
• New video conversation with Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau
• New interviews with author Marie Colmant and film scholar Rodney Hill
• Q&A with Demy from the 1987 Midnight Sun Film Festival, as well as an audio Q&A with him from the American Film Institute in 1971
• Archival audio recordings of interviews with Demy, Legrand, and actor Catherine Deneuve at the National Film Theatre in London
• Interview with actor Anouk Aimée conducted by Varda in 2012
• Interview from 2012 with Varda on the origin of Lola’s song
• Video programs on the restorations of Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Une chambre en ville
• Trailers

In addition, there is a nice booklet featuring essays, photos and more!

Summary:

It's actually not that hard to recommend a 6 movie box set to someone who may be completely unfamiliar with a filmmaker when the box set is as extraordinary as The Essential Jacques Demy.  The care taken with the video, audio and extras furthers Criterion's reputation as the best friend of the cineaste.  This set serves as introduction and immersion, and the most perfect tribute imaginable to a visionary filmmaker.  Highest recommendation.

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