Jacques Demy and Politics
Posted by des1967 on 14 October 2010
When Venicelion’s blog on Jacques Demy appeared some time ago, I started to write a comment on the politics of Demy’s but I became ill and abandoned it. However, I was recently researching for an article on Demy for The Media Education Journal and, having had the opportunity to watch some of Demy’s lesser-known works, I thought it worth revisiting the question. The starting point was Roy’s suggestion that Demy “had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker” [leftist directors in a group known as The Left Bank Group which was part of the French New Wave in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The other group were known as the Cahiers group, being based around the journal, Les Cahiers du Cinéma]. This reflects a position among many commentators that Demy’s work was “fluffy”, “lightweight” and “whimsical”, an attitude echoed in that most clichéd of oxymorons frequently applied to Demy: bitter-sweet. Many of Demy’s biggest fans share this view of the director and recently in The Guardian, an article about the best 50 films for children suggested that Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was suitable for six-year olds! I feel that Demy reputation requires defending as much from his defenders as his detractors.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Although less overtly political than Resnais and Marker, in many of his films Demy shared the political leftism of the others in the Left Bank Group (including his wife Agnes Varda). In his most successful film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), he implicitly criticises the Algerian War at a time when the heavy political censorship in operation made it very difficult to refer to the conflict at all. The war separates a young couple by conscripting Guy, a 20-year-old garage mechanic; he is wounded in an ambush and he returns, limping and embittered, to find his girlfriend who was carrying his baby, gone. His disillusion is shown in the sequence where he limps around the town revisiting places he had visited with Genevieve before he left for Algeria.
The idea of social class permeates the film. Even in the “happy“ opening section, when working-class Guy suggests they get married and run a petrol station, Genevieve, daughter of the petite-bourgeoise proprietor of a chic umbrella shop, remarks, “What a strange idea”. When he is away in Algeria, she gives in to the subtle pressure of her mother and marries a rich jeweller. The American critic Jonathon Rosenbaum remarked about the ending:
The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally “Cherbourgian Stopover,” but if we consider that escalader means “to scale or to climb” and escalier means “stairway,” we can read traces of a buried pun: “a bourgeois step up.” Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Geneviève has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before.
The Pied Piper
Demy’s only US-based film, Model Shop (1968), flirts with the anti-Vietnam War counter-culture but his 1973 English language film, The Pied Piper, is essentially about class struggle. (The on-line journal Jump Cut referred it as a “Neo-Marxist fairy tale”). It is set in the middle ages in the town of Hamelin and the Baron, the Mayor and the Bishop – representatives of the ruling class – plot behind closed doors to increase their wealth and power while the people, kept in fear and ignorance, are outside. The main event in the film is the marriage of convenience between Franz, the Baron’s son, and Lisa, the Mayor’s daughter, a purely political and financial transaction: she hates him and he is interested only in the dowry. In this extract during the wedding ceremony the cake – ironically in the completed form of the unfinished cathedral that the church and civil authorities have been squeezing taxes from the population to build – is discovered to be full of rats. The cake falls apart and they are inside, thus linking Christianity – the ideological buttress of the ruling class - to exploitation and the bubonic plague.
Even in some of Demy’s minor pieces, commissions rather self-generated projects, such as Lady Oscar, the class struggle makes itself felt. This is a 1979 Japanese film (made in English), based on the best-selling manga “The Rose of Versailles” by Riyoko Ikeda, about a woman raised to be a man and serving in the court of Marie Antoinette. She becomes torn between class loyalty and her desire to help the impoverished as revolution brews among the oppressed lower class and she eventually joins the ranks of the revolutionaries. While Demy is not attempting a realistic historical drama and there is a strong fairytale element to the film, he is at pains to show how the aristocrats treat the poor as an inconvenience, as vermin, or as sexual playthings.
Une Chambre en Ville/A Room in Town
This 1982 film is Demy’s most overtly political film, involving a confrontation between the notorious CRS riot police and the strikers in the 1955 naval shipyard workers strike in Nantes and in which, like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, the dialogue is completely sung. It is interesting to note that Demy frames the opening and closing confrontations in a very similar way to the scenes in Lady Oscar when the people enter the scene after the fall of the Bastille as the revolution explodes onto the streets of Paris.
Here are clips from the two films:.
Incidentally, the very idea of a group of CRS policemen singing would have been a bit much for an audience aware of the CRS’s reputation during the events of May ’68 and subsequently. Demy solves the problem by having them chant rather than sing which makes it very Brechtian in style. The fact that it starts in black and white before segueing into colour is meant I think to reference to the contemporary black and white news footage.
Perhaps the most explicit statement of Demy’s political position is, ironically, given to a baroness, the widow of an army colonel, who has come down in the world due to her late son’s debts so that she has to rent out a room to Francois Guilbaud, a metal worker who later has a love affair with her daughter. At first she disapproves of Guilbaud since he is a striker and demonstrator and even more so because of his affair with her daughter, but gradually she mellows in her attitude. The following words are the baroness’s but they are perhaps an expression of Demy’s own political creed. (In most of the film, the words are a kind of recitativo and are therefore laid out as prose rather than verse):
Does it shock you when a bourgeoise lets her hair down? You know, Guilbaud, I don’t give a shit about the bourgeoisie. I’m not one of them. I’ll tell you something: I prefer you and your comrades to the bourgeois. You’re fighting for something, fighting to survive, just like me. The bourgeois are rotting in their material wealth. They wallow in the comfort of their complacency. But I swear they won’t have me as one of their own.
(The subtitles on the DVD are, necessarily, more compressed).
I don’t suggest for a moment that Demy was a political director in the way that, for example, Loach, Costa-Garvas and Godard etc are. In Une Chambre en Ville, the love affair is mostly in the foreground, the strike in the background. Despite the fact that the narrative is punctuated by announcements by the strike leader, Demy shows little interested in the tactics or strategy of winning the strike. However, several French critics have highlighted the political in Demy’ films and not just in Une Chambre en Ville. However, I think I would go along with Gerard Vaugeois‘ caveat that, while Demy is one of the most political of French directors in French cinema, he is so “in his own way” .
The Left Bank Group and the Cahiers Group
On the whole question of the divisions in the New Wave, I wonder, from the vantage point of today, how useful it is to use Richard Roud’s distinction between the so-called Left Bank group (politically on the left) and the supposedly right wing Cahiers group (although there arguably broad stylistic differences between the groups). Some in the Cahiers group certainly adopted a right-wing stance (and continued to do till the end – see Rohmer’s L’Anglaise et le Duc /The Lady and the Duke (2001), quite a different take on the French Revolution from Demy’s). But there were also Marxists such as Pierre Kast in the Cahiers camp. In other respects the delineation isn’t clear. Jacques Rivette is in some ways closer to Resnais than to the rest of the Cahiers group. Many of the accusations of being right wing were directed at the Cahiers group because of the New Wave’s championing of Hollywood cinema in the Cold War period when American cultural artefacts were viewed with suspicion by many on the left.
The issuing of the whole of Demy’s work on DVD will, hopefully, lead to debate and reconsideration of this and other aspects of Demy’ cinema.