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.

Lola

* * * 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.

Full review at EFC.

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.

Full review at EFC.

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.

Full review at EFC.

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