Among the French directors of the New Wave era, Jacques Demy gets short shrift from critics, in part because, in America, he had one of the biggest foreign language hits of the ’60s, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” — a film that was unfashionably romantic, perhaps even sentimental. To make matters worse, it was one of those rare foreign films to receive Oscar nominations — four of them — in the regular, “non-foreign” categories. There may be other reasons, but his popularity may have soiled him to those who worship at the feet of Jean-Luc Godard.
Criterion has released “The Essential Jacques Demy,” an extraordinary set that gathers together six of his 12 features, including all of his best-known work. The set makes it clear that he shares with Godard a love for American films. But, where Godard was deconstructing, Demy experimented with broadening one particular genre, the musical.
The first two films in the set, “Lola” and “Bay of Angels” are, relatively speaking, “realistic,” though there are hints of the direction he was heading. He followed that direction with his third film, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which, among other things, made Catherine Deneuve a star. Impressed by the way “West Side Story” managed to combine street realism with song and dance, he went a step further. The heartfelt story is a simple romance between an auto mechanic and a shopkeeper’s daughter. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl stays lost, and boy finds happiness elsewhere.
In one of the many hours of extras on the Criterion set, Demy says that he wanted to make people cry — and he succeeded, because of — or in spite of (depending on your reaction) — the movie’s daring form. That is, all the dialogue in the film — even the most banal workplace chatter — is sung. It takes some time to get used to; it puts us in a universe somewhere between opera and the real world. Parts of Michel Legrand’s score permanently entered the culture, most notably “I Will Wait Forever,” a melody you know even if you think you don’t.
Demy expanded his musical experimentation in his follow-up, “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967), which adds dance to the mix. With George Chakiris of “West Side Story” and Gene Kelly in the cast, “Young Girls” careens around the titular town, with the characters intersecting in every conceivable way.
The set also includes one more film from his popular period, “Donkey Skin” (1970), a weird fairy tale that shows the influence of Cocteau. It then leaps ahead to the 1981 “Une Chambre en Ville,” another experiment, in which Demy applies “Cherbourg”’s all-singing technique to a story set, believe it or not, within a labor strike.
All of these films have been recently restored, with the late director’s family guiding the process. “Cherbourg” and “Une Chambre” look and sound particularly gorgeous. There are also an impossible number of extras — more than 10 hours worth, by my estimate. These include several TV shows examining the making of the films; numerous interviews, then and now, with Demy and his collaborators; more recent critical interviews; a number of Q and A sessions; and trailers. Most importantly, the set gathers three shorts from the start of Demy’s career, his segment from the anthology film “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and two documentaries by his wife, Agnes Varda — an important filmmaker in her own right — about the man and his work.
The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion, combo pack, 6 Blu-ray discs, 7 DVDs, $124.95)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).