If this reviewer was ever stranded on that proverbial desert island, and could only bring 10 DVDs, one of those movies surely would be Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Watching movies is an intensely personal experience and, to my taste, that film belongs in that very select group of movies that are absolutely perfect. Over the years, with repeated viewings, I've pretty much gotten everything there is to get out of other classic musicals, films like Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon, but for some reason I never tire of The Young Girls of Rochefort. Maybe it's Michel Legrand's score, or Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac's charm, or Gene Kelly's dancing, or the half-smile of resignation on Michel Piccoli's face as he sings about his great lost love.
Or maybe it's Jacques Demy himself. Many filmmakers love movies, but few realized so pure an expression of that love as Demy did time and time again. No filmmaker was better at balancing the harsh realities of life with the magic of the movies and the stratospheric joys of romantic love.
The World of Jacques Demy is a 1995 feature-length tribute, directed by Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda. She accurately describes it as more a "casual stroll" than a chronological account of Demy's life and art, and it's this approach that gives the picture its intimate feel.
It's a fast-paced jumble of film clips, interviews, and reunions—with co-workers, family, and even ordinary fans looking (and sometimes singing) straight into the camera, remembering Demy (who died in 1990) and the personal impact his films had on their lives. Streets and elementary schools are named in his honor, and one young woman reads a fan letter she wrote to Demy that is sure to bring tears to the eyes of anyone ever touched by any of his films.
The picture has the general charm of Demy himself, especially with its several nostalgic reunions. Anouk Aimée and Marc Michel, the stars of Demy's first big hit, Lola (1961) are reunited for apparently the first time in more than 30 years, while Michel Piccoli and Dominique Sanda recall a dramatic highlight in the tragic A Room in Town (1982). Anyone who loves French cinema will want to see this film for the dozens upon dozens of French stars that appears on camera or in archival footage.
The picture also offers glimpses of a number of Demy films which have been fiendishly difficult to see in the United States. One Demy film, Lady Oscar, based on the Japanese manga by Riyoko Ikeda (and the seminal all-girl Takarazuka musical), was never even released in France. Indeed, The World of Jacques Demy only made this reviewer eager to see Demy's later, generally badly-received work. Shown are fascinating clips from Three Places for the 26th (1988), a musical with Yves Montand playing himself; while Parking (1985), looks to be, if nothing else, a fascinating train wreck of a film, a kind of musical remake of Cocteau's Orphée (1949), with Hell now a massive parking garage.
More than most films of this type, there is an enormous amount of surviving behind-the-scenes footage of Demy's films, as well as his early student films and television documentaries. Some of this is quite surprising, such as when Jim Morrison shows up with François Truffaut on the set of Demy's unforgettable fairy tale musical, Donkey Skin (1970).
The interviews, both contemporary and archival, are consistently enlightening and amusing. A French film critic, for instance, amusingly recalls how his communist-activist parents urged him to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), extolling it as "the first honest film about the Algerian War." Or Deneuve discussing how children all over the world recognize her as Peau d'ane from Donkey Skin. Or Harrison Ford, Demy's first choice for the lead role in Model Shop (1969), on how he was nixed by executives at Columbia Studios who felt the actor had no future in movies (Gary Lockwood starred instead).
Perhaps actor Jean Marais (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), on the set of Donkey Skin, said it best, "If I was a billionaire, I'd stop working. But if I were a billionaire, I'd still do this film."
Video & Audio
Wellspring's specs list The World of Jacques Demy as a 4:3 presentation, but the DVD is in fact in 16:9 anamorphic format. The picture bounces around from material shot on film to that shot on tape, and the clips and archival interviews run the gamut from pristine to ragged, but overall the show looks quite good. The mono sound is fine.
Extras are also not listed, modest as they are. They include the usual bios, web links, and a pair of trailers – for Demy's Lola and Bay of Angels.
Demy loved MGM-style musicals, and one is reminded of the popular compilation film That's Entertainment! (1974), which was advertised with the line, "Boy, do we need it now." At a time when mainstream movies rarely seem to be anything other than visceral, high-concept entertainment devoid of real human emotion, the same could be said for the films of Jacques Demy.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.