Jacques Demy and Politics

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.

Lady Oscar

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.


  1. venicelion

    Interesting stuff Des and you’ve convinced me that I must find time somewhere to watch Demy’s later films. I do feel slightly misrepresented though. I certainly did write that Demy didn’t share the politics of Resnais and Marker, but I never implied that his work was fluffy etc. On the contrary, I tried to identify Demy as the nouvelle vague director who stood outside the conventional groupings of directors identified with the New Wave. I meant to imply that he didn’t share the approach/philosophy shared by Resnais/Marker, mainly because he remained focused on the West Coast, not Paris. I didn’t comment on his own political views – which are less in evidence in the first two films. But yes, the social class issues and Algerian War references are significant in Les parapluies de Cherbourg. I took these references much as I took similar referents in Truffaut’s films – I think that was possibly the wrong tack given your analysis of the later films.


  2. des1967

    I think I probably did misrepresent you, by omitting a link in the argument. Often the apolitical criticism goes hand and hand with a kind of condescension (whimsical etc) and I kind of elided the two. And as I said, Demy attracted a kind of audience who wanted the whimsical (and one can’t deny it is part of the mix) and overlooked the darker, pessimistic aspects of Demy’s films, including the politics. I must admit that my favourite film of Demy (and I say favourite, not what I consider his best) is Les Demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort which is not very political at all (apart from a certain anti-militarism but the character who expresses these sentiments turns out to be a violent murderer!)
    It’s true that Demy differed from most of the New Wave who set their films in Paris.
    I think that only two of his films were set in Paris – probably his worst films: L’Évènement le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la lune /A Slightly Pregnant Man) (1973) and Parking (1985). The former has Marcello Mastroianni as a man who discovers he is pregnant and Catherine Deneuve as his wife. (They were a couple at the time but there was no chemistry between them). And if I say the most memorable moment was a song in a music hall by Mireille Mathieu, people who know the French popular music scene at the time ago will know what I mean. The latter is set in and outside Paris and was reworking of the Orpheus myth in the form of a modern pop singer. The only interesting aspect was biographical: the lead character is bisexual as was Demy.

    However it’s stretching the geography a little to say that the region around Nantes provided the backdrop for Demy’s best-known films. Certainly, Lola was set and made in Nantes. Une Chambre en Ville was set in Nantes but largely shot in a studio in Paris. Cherbourg is in Normandy in the North. Perhaps this is pedantic but we could say they were set in Atlantic coastal towns (we’re pushing it a bit to say that Nantes and Rochefort are nowadays coastal towns but never mind). And that certainly is certainly an important aspect of the films – not least because of the likelihood of having sailors appear at any given moment for nor reason: see the point above about Demy’s sexuality. Incidentally, it could easily have been The Young Girls of Avignon, Sète or half a dozen other places in the South but Demy found the perfect location in the central square in Rochefort. He also filmed in Nice and Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast and in Germany.

    With regard to Deneuve, who appeared in four Demy films, she was due to star in Une Chambre en Ville in around 1973 along with Gerard Depardieu but, having been obliged to have her singing voice dubbed by professional singers in the previous films, she was determined to use her own voice this time. Demy stood firm and Deneuve dropped out followed by Depardieu, with most of the funding going with them. He finally made the film in 1982 (though Michel Legrand found it too dark and the music was composed by Michel Colombier) and while a major hit with the critics it was a major flop with the public. In the age of the cinéma du look, he was perhaps considered passé. Some of the cinéma du look films already seem a little passé.


  3. venicelion

    Agnes Varda’s film about her husband is titled Jacquot de Nantes because, I think, that was the city that ‘produced’ him and to which he returned towards the end of his life.


    • des1967

      There’s no question that Nantes plays a central role in his life and work. Even in Les Parapluies, we get a beautiful tracking shot around a nineteenth century shopping precinct, the Passage Pommeraye, when Roland Cassard sings about his lost love, Lola – he was a character in Lola. Demy had a mad ambition to have the same characters criss-cross several films and Lola herself fetches up in LA for Model Shop. As well as in these two films the Passage Pommeraye also appears in A Room in Town. It was here that Demy attended the local cineclub. His musical influences include the operetta which the family attended most weekends in Nantes. And the garage which he lives above is no doubt the inspiration for the garage in Cherbourg.

      His short film Le Sabotier du Val de Loire /The Clogmaker of the Loire Valley, set near Nantes, is also worth a look. It deals with one of the last practioners of a dying trade.


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