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) featured Jeanne 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.