Born in 1931 in the seaport city of Nantes, Jacques Demy experienced a happy childhood. The son of an auto mechanic, Demy’s love for cinema inspired him to make home movies in 8mm. He would work as an apprentice to animator Paul Grimault and later as assistant to film-maker Georges Rouquier before starting his own career by directing a series of shorts. Le bel indifférent (1957) was an adaptation of a play by Jean Cocteau, notable for marking the start of his lifelong collaboration with art director Bernard Evein. The film’s use of color and sophistication of technique gained favorable notice from Jean-Luc Godard in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma; the magazine that served as the organ of the French New Wave. Demy would share with the New Wave a love for American genre films, specifically the musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. Another important influence was the films of Max Ophüls, to whom he would dedicate his first feature Lola.
Made in 1961, Lola’s playful approach to storytelling and its heightened visual style made it the most beloved of the early New Wave films. The title character (played by Anouk Aimée) was a single mother who bore life’s difficulties with a light spirit, an essential theme in Demy’s films. Bay of Angels (1963) featuredJeanne Moreau as a single mother struggling to control her gambling addiction. His first feature in colour was the 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It was a romantic story of young lovers that was literally set to music, since every line of dialogue was sung; the performances keyed to Michel Legrand’s sumptuous score. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg became a deserved popular success, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The film marked Demy’s first collaboration with actress Catherine Deneuve who became a star as a result of the film’s success.
The film’s follow-up, the 1967 The Young Girls of Rochefort was closer to the style of an American musical than the preceding film. It featured song-and-dance numbers and boasted dancers George Chakiris andGrover Dale (stars of West Side Story) as well as a cameo from Gene Kelly alongside a cast that comprised of Michel Piccoli, Danielle Darrieux and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in the title roles. The film was similar to a Robert Altman-style ensemble film in its multiple strands of narrative with its characters frequently crossing each others’ path; missing contact by blind chance or meeting by impossible coincidence. It was Demy’s skill that ensured that these workings of fate felt as spontaneous and surprising in as it does in real life. Fate plays an important role in Demy’s films, secretly lurking behind all the happy and unhappy moments of his characters’ destiny. The success of these films resulted in a contract with Columbia Pictures and an extended period in Los Angeles. During this period Demy and his wife, fellow director Agnès Varda, became involved in America’s counter-culture; befriendingJim Morrison of The Doors. His one American-set film, The Model Shop was a loose sequel to Lola, with Anouk Aimée returning as Cecile/Lola, older and sadder but hopeful as always. His output became sparser in the 70s. His fantasy films, The Donkey Skin, The Pier Piper and Lady Oscar was greeted with skepticism despite its accomplished technique.
Une Chambre en Ville (1982) marked a return to his earlier musical style. However it differed significantly from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort in its tragic depiction of romantic love and its frank sexuality. The music by Michel Colombier was less melodious than Michel Legrand’s works with Demy; the film veered closer to classical opera in its dramatization of l’amour fou. Demy had longed to make the film since the 50s and regarded it as his most personal film. Its subsequent box-office failure proved to be disheartening. His final films, Parking and La table tournante was less successful. His final film was regarded with critical favour. Trois places pour le 26 reunited him with composer Michel Legrand and featured French star Yves Montand in one of his final roles. Jacques Demy suffered from AIDS towards the end of his life. He died in in October 1990 at the age of 59. He worked with Agnés Varda on memoirs of his childhood which resulted in the posthumously released bio-portrait Jacquot de Nantes. She subsequently worked on the restorations of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. The successful revivals of these films enshrined Demy as one of the great talents of French cinema.