It’s widely held that the first four features made by Jacques Demy—Lola (1961), Bay of Angels (1963), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)—are by far his best, and that his career thereafter went into creative decline. True, some of us have long argued that Model Shop (1969) should be added to that list of initial gems, and in recent years, particularly since it was restored, that film has undergone a welcome critical reevaluation. And then there’s Donkey Skin (1970), a huge hit and a much-discussed cultural phenomenon in France. But for most people, that’s it: the consensus is that, for Demy the artist, it was all downhill from there. That’s because very few people have actually seen Une chambre en ville (1982), a late-ish masterpiece that, for this writer at least (and I’m certainly not alone in my opinion), is the equal of any film Demy made.
It’s easy to see why Une chambre en ville has remained so unfairly neglected. The film—coming as it did at the end of a decade-long fallow period for Demy, with the eccentric Lady Oscar (1979) and a good if unremarkable 1980 TV movie of Colette’s La naissance du jour its immediate predecessors—was a box-office flop. Though he had previously attained improbable success with all-sung films—Umbrellas and Donkey Skin, both starring Catherine Deneuve, had been big hits—perhaps that highly artificial style seemed inappropriate for the story of a doomed love affair taking place during a dockers’ strike in fifties Nantes; or perhaps it just didn’t come across as sufficiently “cool” for audiences who’d been flocking to films by the likes of Jean-Jacques Annaud and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Its failure certainly wasn’t due to a lack of critical support; indeed, to the annoyance of some film folk (Jean-Paul Belmondo included) whose movies were released at the same time, a large group of French critics loudly proclaimed their support for Une chambre after its poor opening by taking out an advertisement in Le monde that exhorted readers to see it before it vanished from the cinemas. Alas, the initiative had little discernible effect.
Though the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics went on to award Une chambre the Prix Méliès for the year’s best film, it won none of the nine Césars—France’s equivalent of the Oscars—for which it was nominated. (As it happened, the main winner was Bob Swaim’s La balance, which, like Demy’s film, starred Richard Berry.) Nor did matters improve on those rare occasions when the film played abroad, if my own experience of a London Film Festival screening is anything to go by. Arriving at the cinema, I was advised that the print sent to Britain had no subtitles; given that the film was sung from start to finish, there was no way I was going to submit myself to an earphone translation. Indeed, only after a wait of more than three decades—by which time various rights issues had been sorted out and a subtitled version finally made—was I at last able to see the long-feared-lost film and appreciate it for the masterwork it surely is.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that Une chambre should figure among Demy’s very finest achievements, since it had been on his mind for three decades. The idea for the story came from personal experience. As a child in Nantes, he’d witnessed a shipyard strike with his own eyes, and a procession of dockworkers he’d seen, as they tried to make themselves heard outside the prefecture, became the film’s opening scene. His father and uncles had worked in the yards, and it was the former who told Jacques of a country boy who, like himself, had come to work in Nantes and found lodgings in the home of an aristocratic colonel’s wife. In the 1950s, Demy embarked on a novel on this theme, but he soon decided it would be better served by an opera. Clearly, it was impossible to fund such an ambitious project at that time, but by the midseventies, after the success of Donkey Skin, he was planning a filmed opera version of the story that would star Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, and Simone Signoret. It fell apart when Deneuve, whose singing had been dubbed in her previous films for Demy, decided she wanted her own voice on the soundtrack of the new film. Demy felt that would be folly, and Une chambre was finally made six years later with Dominique Sanda (the model turned actress who had appeared in La naissance du jour), Berry, and Danielle Darrieux in the three main roles.
Another key change: instead of Michel Legrand, who had written the music for all of Demy’s features except Model Shop and 1972’s The Pied Piper (where Spirit and Donovan, the musicians appearing in the respective films, had done the honors), it was Michel Colombier who composed the score for Une chambre. Colombier’s work was extremely varied: before Demy, he’d composed for the likes of Claude Sautet (L’arme à gauche), William Klein (Mr. Freedom), and Jean-Pierre Melville (Un flic), whereas after Une chambre, he scored a bewildering assortment of Hollywood films, the first five of which were Against All Odds, Purple Rain, White Nights, The Money Pit, and Ruthless People. It’s fair to say that his memorably superb work for Une chambre constitutes the creative peak of his career.
It’s hard to credit that anyone—even Demy, who had touched on unwanted pregnancy and the war in Algeria in Umbrellas—would have wanted to make a musical from the story he’d come up with. Covering about twenty-four hours during a shipyard strike, and bookended by two bloody street battles in which workers and their wives are beaten and teargassed by riot police, the film centers on the brief but highly passionate, and ultimately fatal, encounter between François Guilbaud (Berry), a striking metalworker who rents a room in the home of the widowed Margot Langlois (Darrieux), and Margot’s daughter, Edith (Sanda), who has only recently gotten married— most unhappily—to Edmond Leroyer (Michel Piccoli), a TV shop proprietor whose violently possessive jealousy may or may not be a consequence of his sexual impotence. As if the stormy political climate, Edith’s marriage, and Margot’s fears that François may be a Communist weren’t enough to undermine the lovers’ chances of finding lasting happiness together, there are also François’s responsibility toward Violette, a shop assistant whose hopes of marriage have as much to do with blinkered devotion as with the pregnancy she has yet to tell him about; François’s sudden loss of his job due to staff cuts; and, strangest of all, the predictions of Madame Sforza, a fortune-teller who informed Edith that the love of her life would be a metalworker and who later sees something very worrying in the Tarot cards with regard to this same handsome stranger.
In other words, despite the film’s unprecedentedly dark tone, we’re in a world that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Demy’s first six features:a world where what seems like extraordinary coincidence may actually be a working out of fate, and where happiness through love is much desired, wholly possible, and inevitably transient. It’s a world, too, that may initally appear somewhat artificial—people don’t sing their way through real life, after all—but that somehow soon persuades us of its absolute emotional veracity. Indeed, Une chambre is the most extreme and audacious of Demy’s films in the way it combines very conspicuous artifice with the darker aspects of quotidian existence. What other film musical has, as its opening, a tense standoff between sinister black-clad cops (more evocative of the early eighties, when it was made, than of the fifties, in which it’s set) and sloganeering strikers that soon slips into pitched battle? Or has as its heroine a married woman so keen to get even with her brutally possessive husband that she cruises the streets at night, naked under her fur coat, in search of anonymous sex? Or a hero feckless enough to dump the girl he’s gotten pregnant after spending a single night with another? And how many musicals have a major character suddenly succumb to accidental death, let alone two more who take their own lives, one with a razor, the other with a gun?
But then, dramatically as well as musically, Une chambre is considerably closer to opera than to any conventional musical. While a chorus here calls to mind Verdi, a moment of tormented passion there Puccini, there are also echoes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that sound with the lovers’ final union in death. Despite occasional moments of relative levity—when the “Baroness” Margot lets down her guard to indulge in bittersweet remembrance of things past with François (there are hints that she, too, may have taken a fancy to him), but also in the scenes featuring François’s “always smiling” friend Dambiel (Jean-François Stévenin)—the predominant mood is one of an intensity verging on the hysterical, even the surreal. When Edith tells her mother how hellish her life with Edmond has become, her “C’est infernal!” is sung with remarkably chilling power. When François is about to leave Edith in the hotel room where they’ve spent the night together, their duet ends when—against a backdrop of bright green wallpaper dotted with white clouds—he pulls aside her fur coat to embrace her naked body and creates an image of violent passion reminiscent of Magritte’s 1928 painting Les jours gigantesques. And when Edmond and Edith argue in his shop, he brandishing a razor, she pointing a pistol, the characters look and sing directly at us as they circle each other like animals, while the camera in turn traps them within its own circular whirling, until the desperate duet—no unifying harmonies here, but a rising crescendo of alternating accusations—is brought to a shockingly swift end by the slitting of a throat.
The music—a combination of arias, recitatives, and choruses that, in embracing both a large symphonic orchestra and electric instruments more attuned to jazz-funk or pop, is a perfect example of what critic David Thomson has called Demy’s “bold coupling of classical and romantic culture”—is used by the writer-director to heighten the emotional force of his libretto. And there’s no doubt that Colombier’s allocation of appropriate musical themes to the main characters—Edith headstrong and single- minded, François meandering but with outbursts of passion, Margot querulous but conciliatory, Violette soft and a little too sweet, Edmond volatile and aggressive—together with his facility for an affecting but never obvious melody, works its spell very successfully. But Demy’s direction is no less eloquent in its combination of evocative low-key expressionism and subtly revealing precision. Working again with Bernard Evein (his art director ever since the 1957 short Le bel indifférent), he uses color and decor to enhance not only mood but characterization: the baroness’s apartment, with its deep reds and blues, suggests a protective cocoon, while Edmond’s bizarrely green shop and suit and his still stranger red hair and beard call to mind jealousies and neuroses that verge on the diabolical. Demy’s mise-en- scène can be amazingly subtle too, however, in its attention to the smallest detail. When Edmond, visiting Margot in the hope of finding his missing wife, momentarily wonders whether she may have committed suicide, he stands, head in hand, next to a photograph of Margot’s son, who, she told François some scenes earlier, killed himself in a car crash. Likewise, when Edith later returns to tell her mother and François of her argument with Edmond, not only is the blood spilled during that fatal meeting evoked by Margot’s red dress and furnishings but there is a reminder of the victim’s uncontrollably proliferating jealousy in the green plant positioned before her.
Une chambre may be “poetic” in its use of music, metaphor, and allusion, but it’s also densely informative; every line in the libretto makes a telling point. Moreover, the characters are well-rounded rather than mere types. François and Edith may be romantic protagonists, but both display self- centered flaws. Violette’s generosity is also naïveté, Margot veers between kind concern, unthinking prejudice, and woozy regret, and even the deranged and violent Edmond tries pathetically to overcome his cruel, crippling jealousy. There are no villains here; like Jean Renoir, Demy knew that everyone has his or her reasons. This being a Demy film, the prime reason for any action is love: the presence or absence of it, the need for it. What distinguishes this film from his others is that people die for it. And we are moved by that; we believe in their readiness to die for love.
Which makes Une chambre a very special film, not only in terms of its relationship to the rest of Demy’s oeuvre—put simply, it is arguably more ambitious and more personal, on an emotional, psychological, and political level, than anything else he made—but also with regard to the cinema in general. It’s hard to think of anything quite like it—its story, its setting, its style, and its intensity are very different from those of other film musicals, yet it is also, in its utterly cinematic conception and execution, quite distinct from the vast majority of operas that have been committed to celluloid. All of Demy’s finest films feel as if they occupy a magical realm unique to their creator, but even in comparison with that marvelous body of work, Une chambre en ville, with its readiness—indeed, its need—to fully embrace amour fou and death, really does seem one of a kind.