BITTER/SWEET: THE FILMS OF JACQUES DEMY Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (February 15) to March 16. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
At the start of his career, critics and the public hailed French director Jacques Demy for his poignant, poetic, lighter-than-air romantic fairy tales, characterized by equal parts filmic grace and Gallic sadness. Not much later and for exactly the same qualities, critics reviled him and the public stayed away, neither seeming to care that his confections revealed a more emotionally ambiguous world than is usually delivered by romance.
Demy’s sophistication is evident from his first feature, Lola (1961, Friday, February 15, 7:30 pm), dedicated to his hero and mentor, Max Ophüls, master of studio-bound high style and grand romance. Demy adopts some of Ophüls’s sumptuous visual approach, but finds emotional depth in location work and small, ordinary stories.
In Lola, Demy’s camera and characters glide with the joy of dancers. Dance hall hostess Lola (the hugely appealing Anouk Aimée) pines for the man who left her pregnant, cares for his son, screws sailors and contemplates falling in love with long-lost childhood friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). He’s a moody young man being drawn into international diamond smuggling. That’s a hoary plot convention, but Demy smartly subverts it to enhance his themes.
Everything works out in the end, but not in the ways we expect. Check out Roland’s weirdly arbitrary and rootless declaration of love. It says much about Demy’s view of life.
Roland is back two movies later, in 1964’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (Sunday, February 17, 3 pm). This is the director at his enchanting peak. Everything floats like a dream. Everyone sings their dialogue. It’s glorious artifice, but in service to a perfectly ordinary, realistic story centred on a pregnant young girl (a radiant Catherine Deneuve) who pines for her beloved, who’s fighting in Algeria, while her mother and circumstances impel her toward a more sensible marriage.
Between Lola and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, Demy made a nearly perfect movie. Like the others, Bay Of Angels (1963, Saturday, February 16, 9 pm) is centred on a woman, but this time she’s a monster. Jeanne Moreau is riveting and terrifying as the roulette addict who loves nothing but the wheel.
It’s visually graceful, as always, but Demy undercuts himself with Moreau’s tottering walk and preposterous cigarette holder. There’s a queasy, not magical, moment when the young bank clerk (Claude Mann) she picks up and drags to casinos proclaims his love. She’ll eat him alive and pawn the bones.
In the movie’s first shot, the camera flees Moreau’s character at top speed; it’s got nothing to do with the narrative, but it’s an appropriate response. The last shot has the camera inside the gloom of the casino, framing the lovers in a tiny square of overbright sunshine. Both shots and the movie they frame are frightening.
They say a lot about love, none of it mere confection.