In one of those semi-comical, philosophically-fueled drunken sessions I remember, the unavoidable question of death, a recurring topic of these discussions, popped up. And for some peculiar and not-so-morbid reason, we laid down our thoughts about how our funerals would be like.
The choice of burial varied considerably. One expressed his wish to be buried in his favorite bar; another said he wanted his ashes to be scattered from a Hawaiian beach by a group of bikini-clad beauties. Mine was somewhat different.
“I want to be laid to rest in a small chocolate factory with the musicals of Jacques Demy playing 24/7,” I promptly said. “Why Jacques Demy?” a friend asked. “Well,” I confidently replied, “Is there anything more beautiful than a Demy musical?”
My far-fetched declaration may cause you to cringe, but I guess this is what happens when you fall under the spell of the late great French filmmaker whose films, to me at least, are the very epitome of beauty.
Born in Pontchâteau in 1931, Demy began his career as an assistant to documentarian Georges Rouquier who produced his first short, “Le Sabotier du Val de Loire,” in 1955. His highly idiosyncratic visual style and themes that defined his later films are all evident in his early works: Great attention to detail, strong sense of color, complex characterization, dreamy soundtracks and a shade of doomed romanticism.
Demy belonged to Left Bank, or Rive Gauche group, whose members included Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Demy’s wife, Agnès Varda. Contrary to the works of the group, Demy kept politics at bay, hinting at the realities of his day but never fully engaging with the outside world; a philosophy that led to his subsequent fall from grace with both his peers and critics.
His first full-length feature, “Lola” (1961), was met with universal acclaim, garnering the seal of approval from French New Wave’s poster boy Jean-Luc Godard who included the film in his top 10 list of the year.
Lensed by Godard and Truffaut’s frequent collaborator, Raoul Coutard, “Lola” is an unrequited love story between a hapless young drifter named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) and a free-spirited cabaret singer (Anouk Aimée) who awaits the return of the father of her young daughter.
Demy followed “Lola” with “La Baie des Anges” (Bay of Angels, 1962), a character study about a pair of star-crossed gamblers starring Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann.
And then came “Les parapluies de Cherbourg” (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), his timeless masterpiece that took the world by storm to earn him Cannes’ Palm d’Or, five Academy Award nominations, the biggest commercial success of his career and a solid place in history for creating the greatest French musical of all time.
Set in the seaport of Cherbourg in Normandy, the film tells the ostensibly simple story of Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), a working-class auto mechanic, and Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve, in her star-making performance), daughter of a petit-bourgeois owner of a brolly store.
Living in a modest apartment complex with his ailing aunt, Guy keeps his relationship with Geneviève under the wraps. Their marriage plans hit a brick wall when Guy gets drafted for the Algerian War. After consummating their love, Guy leaves for two years, leaving a pregnant Geneviève with a flimsy promise and a heavy burden.
Alone and restless, she starts questioning her love to Guy. Along comes Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, recreating his role in “Lola”). The once penniless romantic is now an affluent jeweler seeking to forget his love for Lola with Geneviève. Initially indifferent to his advances, she ultimately accepts his marriage proposal.
Two years later, an injured Guy returns home to find Geneviève gone and the umbrellas store closed. Lost and hurt, he attempts to build a new life with his loving neighbor Madeleine (Ellen Farner).
The music of “Cherbourg” was written by the hugely influential composer Michel Legrand, whose filmography include Godard’s musical “Une femme est une femme” (A Woman is a Woman), Varda’s “Cléo from 5 to 7” and Barbara Streisand’s “Yentl.” The entire dialogue of the film is sung as recitative, hence declassifying it as a filmic opera à la Alan Parker’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” for example. The larger part of the film is composed of jazzily scored conversations intercut with classical recurring motifs.
The idea of a sung dialogue may sound corny, off-putting even, but within the first 10 minutes, you automatically get accustomed to the rhythm of the film as Demy immerses you deeper into his dreamy landscapes.
“Cherbourg” shares more with the melodramas of Max Ophüls (“The Earrings of Madame de…”) the more buoyant American musicals of Minnelli or Donen-Kelly. His characters are far from conventional; his heroines are beguiling, seductive and not entirely sympathetic. If his plots lack the mystery of Ophüls’ films, his characters don’t.
Take Geneviève for instance. The devotion and unconditional love she pledges for Guy gradually disintegrates by a chronic impatience over his absence. She’s young, imprudent and not as selfless as she appears to be. In one telling scene, she declares that her body has been disfigured by pregnancy. The real motive behind her acceptance of Cassard’s proposal is never made clear as well: Has she truly grown out of love with Guy or was she too pusillanimous to raise a child on her own? Perhaps she’s grown up, realized that her love has no place in the real world; that financial security is more paramount.
Whatever her rationale may be, Demy doesn’t judge her, leaving the verdict for the viewers to draw. Yet his sympathies clearly lie with Guy whose idealism is crushed with Geneviève’s departure.
Demy realizes his bittersweet tale via stunning visuals that ranks among the most captivating in history. Every frame of film is carefully constructed; each frame is piece of art. Aided by Jean Rabier’s radiant cinematography, Demy synchronizes every movement of his characters with Bernard Evein’s lush décor, Jacqueline Moreau’s customs and Legrand’s music with unequaled deftness.
Color structure is composed chiefly of burning primaries; characters symbiotically blend in with their surrounding that, on occasion, appear to engulf them. Demy also uses wall paint to reflect both the mood and economic stature of his characters: Guy’s shabby room is painted with dark blue; Geneviève’s in pink. The brothel, on the other hand, where Guy pays a visit upon his return, is pained in dark red.
The fantastical world Demy conjures with his visuals fails to trample reality at the end. The unbound optimism and bubble-gum romanticism of the first part of the film is eventually grounded, leading to the heart-breaking, snow-drenched iconic last scene.
All what Demy wanted to do with is to tell great love stories with evocative soundtracks. He’s mostly remembered for his exuberant, sun-drenched musicals that also include the Donen-Kelly-like “Les demoiselles de Rochefort”, fairytale “Peau d’âne” and working-class opera “Une chambre en ville.” The enormously uplifting “Rochefort” aside, there’s always been a sense of melancholy that runs in Demy’s gorgeous creations; a quality best manifested in “Cherbourg.”
The much-discussed conclusion is both a paean to mature, domestic life as much as an elegy for the passionate first love. In Deneuve, Geneviève becomes that unattainable love, that unforgettable love that’s impossible to replace. At the end of the film, love doesn’t triumph all; it doesn’t redeem anyone, leaving both Guy and Geneviève with non-healing scars. And it all looks so beautiful on screen.
“Les parapluies de Cherbourg” is showing Thursday, 7 pm at the French Culture Center. Address: Madraset El Hokouk El Frinseya St., Mounira, Cairo. Tel: (02)2795 3725