Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy: Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Lady Oscar

I did not get to very much of the Harvard Film Archive's Jack Demy retrospective, "Once Upon a Song...", in large part because, despite the Archive geographically being the closest theater to my house, it can often seem out of the way. I'll be doing things on the weekend that may not line up with the screening, or get off the Red Line hungry but not have time to eat before the movie starts, and is this time/money/convenience I want to give up for something often less obviously fun than the other alternative activities at hand? It's why, in the past, I've to purchase a membership until just before a series I knew I wanted to binge on.

I should have done so just before the Demy series; belonging and paying a lower price per ticket might have had me a little more adventurous and eager to sample Demy's films. Maybe not - I think that before these films, I was a little too anxious to lump him in with the form-and-theory guys like Godard that still leap to mind when someone says "French Film" to me. He was still one of them - the guy who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was certainly experimenting with form - but his work came out much more emotional than intellectual, and more optimistic than cynical, than many of his peers.

And, yes, I loved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg when I saw it last year, and while I generally wanted to see more by the guy who made that, I also put two things that seemed most likely to recreate that experience at the top of my list. Lola shares an actual continuity with Umbrellas, while The Young Girls of Rochefort is another musical - though a more conventional one - that consciously or unconsciously reflects the previous film by the cadence of their names.

I'm strongly tempted to re-watch Umbrellas when the Blu-ray comes in a few days (as of last night, Amazon had the Criterion set of Demy's six most "essential" films at 52% off), both because it's great and to see how the three link. Not only does Lola explain to those of us who saw them out of order why Roland is the way he is, but its story in many ways follows the same outline as Young Girls. Of course, I tend to think that Etienne and Bill will wind up in a better place - theirs is a movie about happy endings, they haven't been nursing their infatuations for nearly as long, and, hey, they've got Josette with them, and she's just as crush-worthy as the twins.

In some ways, though, late-1970s obscurity Lady Oscar was even higher on the list once I saw it and it's description on the Archive's calendar. I had heard the name before, you see, seven years ago when a trip to Montreal's Fantasia Festival included a movie called Arch Angels, a goofy manga adaptation about three girls at a private school on an island who become superheroes. One of them, the one who is something of a jock is referred to add the school's "Lady Oscar", which just seemed utterly random to me until I saw it here. That's why I say in the review that this kind of girl is still sometimes called "Lady Oscar" in Japan, but for all I know it was just this one manga-ka ten years ago making a reference to something she liked as a girl.

Even beyond that curiosity, though, the sheer circuitousness of the path it took kind of fascinates me: It's listed on IMDB as Japanese/French, but filmed in English, and a little poking around for information online suggests it was only released in Japan for obscure legal reasons. If that's the case, why the heck is it in English? Might as well let Demy work in his native language and make it a bit more authentic, right? The only thing I can think of is that the investors thought this was too pricey to make its budget back entirely in Japan, and English was a better bet for an international hit, although something that was going to play art-houses anyway because it's weird may as well be in French...

Go figure. It's a weird movie that is barely known outside of Japan, and it's kind of great that Demy has one of those in his filmography. Having ordered the box set of his other "essential" movies, I'm looking to see what else he's got.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

When the name of one character in an ensemble cast is also the title of the film, she had better earn it; otherwise, someone in the audience is going to feel ripped off about the film not delivering what's on the ticket or not giving their idea of who the real star is top billing. This, happily, is not a problem with Jacques Demy's 1961 feature debut Lola; even if one latches onto another character, there's no doubt that he or she exists in Lola's orbit.

In fact, the film introduces us to two men before Lola: Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a man suffering crippling ennui in his latest office job, and Frankie (Alan Scott), and American sailor whose ship has been docked in Nantes for some time but will sail soon. When he and his buddies go to the dance hall, it's understood by now that he'll be the one to see Lola (Anouk Aimée), the star of the show, going home with her as she picks up her son Yvon from school. Should she go to America with Frankie, take a gig she's been offered down the coast, or stay there and wait for Yvon's father to return? Meanwhile, Roland meets another single mother, Mme. Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), and her daughter Cécile (Annie Duperoux), at the bookstore; the mother is taken with Roland, but it is the girl that reminds him of someone he knew in his own teen years, also named Cécile.

There is also an apparently wealthy man arriving in town driving a fancy American car, and a woman at the bar beneath Roland's apartment talking about her son who left town years ago, leaving some poor girl pregnant. Guessing how all these characters connect earns no points - it is, almost always, exactly what you likely expect - but that's not the point. The fun is in watching Demy orchestrate near-misses and reunions, play things out in quick bursts, and demonstrate that, despite the practical challenges thrown in its way, romance and optimism are reborn with each new generation and never truly die in the previous one.

And, certainly, Lola is one to inspire such feelings. She has a head start, of course, of being played by Anouk Aimée in her prime, walking into the film in a costume that gives the audience an idea of her every asset without giving them over to the viewer entirely. Aimée wields her beauty casually, presenting Lola as a woman who does the same, skilled at the art of living in the present and deflecting the future, facing the world with good cheer but not allowing it to sink claws into her. She is at once easy to get along with and gracefully unmovable when she decides that it would be to her benefit to discard a man in the same way men so often discard women.

Roland Cassard does not move through the film so smoothly; fifty years later, he looks more than a bit insufferable as he takes things for granted and dismisses that which falls short of his idea of perfection, and Marc Michel plays that early iteration of the character with wit but, perhaps, insufficient charm. The brilliance of his performance, though, is watching him regain an optimistic view, both in how he sees something perfect in how Cécile is standing on the border of being a girl and a young woman, along with how he comes to believe in things again after meeting Lola. It transforms a crime into a potential adventure, even though his attitude sometimes shifts just a little bit.

He is far from the only one whose life is redirected by his encounter with Lola - Alan Scott's Frankie is doomed but helpless and Jacques Harden's Michel is drawn to her but has trouble overlooking her circumstances, and though only the first is actually American, the way they move and talk marks them as transient outsiders as much as anything in the plot. And while neither Desnoyers woman actually meets Lola, one can almost look at them as transitional states on either side of her: Elina Labourdette presents an anxiousness just shy of desperation where the possibility of a man entering the mother's life is concerned, while Annie Duperoux seems almost ahead of her time as Cécile, delivering tart words while reading a science-fiction comic book, observing everything with a critical eye while still wanting to rush headlong into the world.

Demy juggles all of this quite well, for the most part - like many French filmmakers of this period, he has carefully studied the rules of how stories are told on film but opts to practice rather than deconstruct them, connecting the important things just so, though he does build his story around some unlikely bits of ignorance. He sets the film in his hometown of Nantes, which regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard photographs beautifully in black-and-white. He also begins his highly fruitful collaboration with composer Michel Legrand with a score that places the film's romantic heart front and center.

The filmmaker would later return to two of these characters in separate films, although Lola is quite fine on its own (though you should see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg without any concern of how it connects to this film). It's the start of an excellent filmmaker's career, and often delightful besides.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is the movie musical in perhaps its purest, most joyous form, a fountain of bright colors, catchy tunes, and whimsical coincidences that is just modern enough that one almost expects it to try and justify its lightness. Jacques Demy, thankfully, saw no need to do this; it may have been the turbulent, experimental 1960s elsewhere in the cinema, but this screen offered effervescent entertainment, justified not by some self-referential subtext, but simply by doing what it sets out to do about as well as a movie can.

The two main Young Girls of Rochefort in question are the Garnier twins: Blonde Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) teaches dance and is breaking up with her pretentious artist boyfriend; her red-headed sister Solange (Françoise Dorléac) teaches music in the same studio and would like the local music store's owner, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), to share her newest composition with Andrew Miller (Gene Kelly), an American friend from his conservatory days now doing a European tour. Their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darieux) runs a french-fry stand, often serving Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a sailor stationed at the nearby naval base who dreams of being an artist and finding his ideal of feminine beauty. Also setting up camp there are Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), two vagabonds who man a motorcycle company's pavilion at town fairs, but who have just had the two girls who usually do a song and dance up front quit and blow town. What are they to do?

One would think that the pair would be easily replaceable in Rochefort, as musical numbers apparently break out at the drop off a hat there. The film opens with dancing that, owing to the city being accessed via a transport bridge, takes place in mid-air despite standing on a solid platform, as suitable a way to establish its embellished reality without quote entering the realm of fantasy. Once Etienne and Bill make landfall, things keep right on going, with just enough sailors and smartly-dressed ladies wandering the background of any street scene that they don't quite come out of nowhere when a production number starts, and Demy uses the town's big, beautiful square like a stage. And then, just as the audience is staring to take the charm and inventiveness choreographer Norman Maen displays in staging these numbers on location for granted, Gene Kelly shows up, and even if he's a bit past his prime, he still kicks things up to another level.

It's also worth noting that not only are the songs by Michel Legrand generally delightful, the fact that the film was shot in both French and English probably winds up helping the subtitles quite a bit. I never felt the disconnect between sung lines and reading text here that I did during Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and other non-English musicals while watching the French version of the film.

Talking about the film being light and effervescent can give the mistaken impression of something flavorless, when in fact the movie is very funny, too. Demy peppers the script with deliberately corny jokes and silly rhymes, but he also makes Delphine and Solange kind of bratty and sarcastic, and their little brother Booboo a real pain in the neck. There is amusing poking at the fourth wall as people get into position for a number or the sisters refer to "our song", and pop culture references that can still get a laugh almost fifty years later. The last act even gets into some downright dark humor.

Real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac are a huge part of why the film winds up so funny, despite Catherine not necessarily being known for comedy. She gets the be the slightly snarkier one, playing slight snobbiness for laughs and bantering well, whether with her sister or the guys. Françoise, meanwhile, gets to be somewhat goofier, not exactly doing slapstick but certainly playing her part as broader and more physical - she was also the better dancer, although that's kept in reserve until the end. It is a crying shame she died so young. Americans George Chakiris and Grover Dale are cast in large part for their skill as dancers, and don't disappoint there, although they're also sunny counterparts to the slightly aloof ladies, with Dale especially being funny just standing there. There's a great brace of supporting actors as well, from Jacques Perrin as a wistful (but kind of youthfully foolish) Maxence to Danielle Darrieux as the happily busy mother, to Michel Piccoli as the sentimental shopkeeper. Gene Kelly was probably too old for his role and dubbed in some scenes, but gives the film legitimacy without making it heavy.

Seeing them just a couple of weeks apart certainly highlights how, in many ways, this is a lighter film from the same template as Lola, complete with obvious connections, reunions, near-misses, and some characters fated to wind up unmatched (although it's not the crushing experience for them that it may be for others). It's also got some of the same plot holes - for as open as characters are about their histories, you'd think some of the important details would have been shared so as to raise flags in 1967. But, perhaps, that is not so important compared to the world and feeling that Demy and his collaborators create.

It's a wonderful world, and it's no surprise to see in Agnes Varda's twenty-fifth anniversary documentary that the city of Rochefort embraced the picture as few places do. It's a sheer delight, even for those of us that don't necessarily like musicals unless they are done this well.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Lady Oscar

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Once Upon a Song... Jacques Demy, 35mm)

Lady Oscar is quite a peculiar movie artifact - French director Jacques Demy's English-language adaptation of a Japanese comic about a noblewoman who lived as a man and served as a palace guard at Versailles until the French Revolution. It is not a bad film at all, although I must confess - how it got made in this particular form seems to be just as strange as the story it tells.

It begins with a proud general (Mark Kingston) welcoming an eighth daughter into the world and declaring that this one will be raised as a son, therefore giving her the peculiar name of Oscar Françoise de Jarjayes, and directing that the child's nanny (Constance Chapman) take in her orphaned nephew Andre so that they may be raised together. Years later, Oscar (Catriona MacColl) has grown skilled as a soldier and when she is assigned to the Royal Guard, Andre (Barry Stokes) is given a job in the stables. Soon Oscar is the personal guard to Marie Antoinette (Christine Böhm) and struggling with her attraction to her paramour, Hans von Fersen (Jonas Bergström), but also not oblivious to how Andre feels about her, despite their differences in rank.

Though relatively unknown in the United States, Ikeda Riyoko's shojo manga The Rose of Versailles casts a tremendous shadow in Japan; girls who are athletic or otherwise drawn to traditionally-masculine pursuits will still occasionally be called "Lady Oscar", the animated series based upon the comics has been reissued (including its first American release), and there's apparently still a line of cosmetics inspired by the property. In many ways, it typifies what people think of when shojo (girls') manga or anime is mentioned: Grand melodrama, lavish, beautiful detail, elaborate clothes, and an artistic style that emphasizes the characters' delicacy.

And though Demy and company don't fill the screen with sparkles, they do an impressive job of translating this comic style to live-action. Though the picture is not overwhelmingly ornate, it is full of elaborate detail, and if Cartiona MacColl doesn't quite look like this sort of drawing brought to life, she'll certainly do, with her expressive eyes and costumes that are far too beautiful to fool very many - indeed, within the story it seems that the only people who are fooled are the ones who cannot conceive of a woman in this sort of position, while the women in court tend to find Oscar exciting, as a trend of ladies crossdressing begins as they try to experience a different life vicariously.

No, having a European man tap into the shojo style does not turn out to be the issue - instead, Demy and screenwriting collaborator Patricia Louisianna Knop (who would later become better known for her work with husband Zalman King) fall prey to the pitfall that has swallowed so many who adapt manga on film: The source material is so sprawling - twenty-five volumes of roughly 200 pages each - and episodic that a film just doesn't have room to fit the whole over-arching story or all of the popular moments and characters. This one winds up covering thirty-five years, going off on tangents that have good scenes but don't necessarily help give the film a central thrust. There are a couple of potentially great ideas in here - there's a villainess also presenting herself as something she is not who could have been a great foil for Oscar, though their paths barely cross, and Oscar's growing sympathy with what would eventually erupt into the Revolution has plenty of intriguing facets. Ultimately, though, it's hard for the filmmakers to keep focus; the years pass too slowly and no story of Oscar's gets to take center stage in a way that makes her more than an unusual witness to history.

Cartiona MacColl, at least, fills the part nicely. Oscar-the-soldier may sometimes feel a little like she's overcompensating, but it's not a role she plays, either; it does feel like who she was raised to be rather than what she plays at to please her father. It's a physically clever performance - aside from selling the occasional bit of swashbuckling, she always walks more quickly and in a straighter line than the other women, even in a big, airy dress - even if the line readings can be a bit flat. That's not unique to MacColl; the whole cast is a little off from natural in some way, with Barry Stokes's Andre probably the closest and Christine Böhm eventually making Marie more absurd than sly-but-oblivious.

Enough of the property's appeal shines through that you can see why Demy and Knop would be a good team to make Lady Oscar - when it's on, it's a lush, colorful picture with adventure, romance, and just a tiny thrill of kink, filled with characters that let the filmmakers have fun with gender and class roles. Making it in English in the hopes of it becoming an international hit seems to hamper the production, though, as does trying to fit too much story into two hours. At least enough goes right that one is liable to finish the movie liking the things that work, rather than wondering what the people involved were thinking.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

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