Jacques Demy and Nantes: The Roots of Enchantment

On Film / Essays — Jul 30, 2014

My hometown of Nantes is probably the key to my complicity with Jacques Demy. This is where, when I was sixteen, I saw my first movie being shot, in the city streets. That movie was Lola (1961). Later, I saw Demy in Nantes introducing his film to an audience, and also presenting Singin’ in the Rain at a ciné-club. He came back another time to present The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and I knew that was it—I was under the spell. We still hadn’t met, although I wrote him a letter—unsigned!—to tell him how deeply moved I was by The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Years went by and then, in the midseventies, returning from Canada and very much involved with film, I had the opportunity to organize a complete retrospective of Demy’s work in Nantes. This time we didn’t miss each other. It was one of the worst periods in his career, when it seemed that all his projects came to nothing. I appeared at the right moment, ready to stand up for his films, eager to make his work the subject of my doctoral thesis. It was published in 1982 and was the first book about his work. By then, we had developed a relationship of trust and friendship—he shared his projects with me, allowed me to follow the production of his last three films, and gave me hope that there would be more.

Demy, too, was a child of Nantes, a large commercial port in western France, on the mouth of the Loire River. The city thrived on the slave trade to America in the eighteenth century, before turning to the import of exotic products and shipbuilding. After World War II, which ended when he was barely fifteen, Demy often had to walk home from school through the bustling port. On Sundays, the citizens of Nantes enjoyed their promenades with their families along the loading docks, using the transporter bridge to cross the Loire and visiting—as I often did fifteen years later—the warships, mostly American, whose arrivals were always a major event. Nantes was scarred by the war, and an entire section of the city center—near the Demy family’s auto-repair shop—had been razed by Allied air raids when little Jacques was twelve.

In 1949, Demy moved to Paris with his friends Bernard Evein and Jacqueline Moreau—subsequently to become his favorite set and costume designers—to study filmmaking and apprentice under two original and modest masters, the documentarian Georges Rouquier and the animation filmmaker Paul Grimault. But although Demy had moved to Paris, his heart remained in Nantes—as well as on Noirmoutier, a small island close to Nantes, where he purchased an old mill with the money earned from his first feature films. The mill gave directly onto the beach, but Demy had an American-style pool installed and also acquired an equally huge American ice-maker refrigerator that he would show off with pride. It was there that he liked to go to relax or write when he had a little spare time. It was there, too, that I would often visit to discuss his projects. We had more peace and quiet than in Paris, and we both liked walking on the beach while we talked.

Of all the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Demy was, along with Claude Chabrol, the most provincial. But Chabrol liked the countryside for its own sake, like a tourist who comes to observe the habits and mores of a community that stimulates his curiosity. Demy, on the other hand, was always searching for the image of Nantes wherever he went; in other words, a port just far enough from the sea to offer no direct view of it but close enough to give a sense of its presence—even if only in the dreams of departure that pervaded the city. This explained his preference for Nice, Cherbourg, Rochefort, and Marseille, all ports devoted to commerce and travel rather than fishing. Even when Demy directed a film in the United States, he set the action of Model Shop (1969) in Venice Beach, the oceanside extension of Los Angeles. To make up for the missing port activity, Demy filled Venice with the noise of planes taking off and landing at nearby Van Nuys Airport.

Demy shot only two films in Nantes, but they have pride of place in his work, illustrating his belief that cities, like people, are divided between shadow and light, seriousness and nonchalance. In Lola, the city is sunny, modern, joyfully enlivened by the fairground attractions and the American sailors out on a binge. In Une chambre en ville (1982), the city becomes dark, closed in on itself, beleaguered by workers’ demonstrations that turn the streets into a battlefront. We recognize these opposing visions in the representations these two films offer of the Passage Pommeraye, that mysterious heart of Nantes so beloved of the surrealists and that Demy filmed three times.

An extraordinary shopping mall on three levels, built in the midnineteenth century, the Passage Pommeraye is an apotheosis of contradictions. It is a perfectly enclosed space and yet largely open to the aquariumlike light filtering through its glass roof. It is at once interior and exterior, vertical and horizontal, made up of shops and apartments. Since his childhood, its decorative extravagance and the buoyancy of its wooden staircases tumbling toward the river had fascinated Demy. It was here, in fact, that he acquired his first camera, in exchange for a Meccano set and a few books. In Lola, the arcade is congenial and sun-filled when Roland meets Lola there. But the same arcade grows sullen and nocturnal in Une chambre, where it turns into a death trap. For Demy, the Passage Pommeraye represented quintessential Nantes, so much so that, in Umbrellas, when Cassard tells Madame Emery how he once loved a woman named Lola who did not love him, the filmmaker illustrates the recitative with a long dolly shot through the deserted arcade. At the end of his life, Demy told me that one of his dreams as a filmmaker was to shoot an entire movie within this enclosed space. We can understand why: the Passage Pommeraye, with its boutiques and mazelike galleries, is a synthesis of Demy’s films, a place where it is as easy to keep running into someone as it is to completely miss him.

If, for Demy, the Passage Pommeraye was an emblematic site symbolizing Nantes, so too was the transporter bridge, which was demolished only three years before the shooting of Lola. The engineer Ferdinand Arnodin built only five of these bridges in France, between 1898 and 1909, all now gone except for the one in Rochefort, which we see at length in the opening and closing scenes of Young Girls. In Une chambre, Demy resorts to special effects to re-create the towering silhouette of the lost bridge in Nantes. And in Three Seats for the 26th (1988), a piece of scenery on the stage of the theater where Yves Montand sings re-creates the Marseille transporter, which was destroyed during the Second World War.

Demy was prevented only by budgetary constraints from painting the bridge of Rochefort pink, to give the impression that, in stepping onto this bridge in the opening scene of Young Girls, one is entering a world that doesn’t really belong to this earth. A world as magical as those enchanted forests where one has to wander and lose one’s way, have some encounters and miss others, and from which one must eventually emerge because, after all, everyone has to get back to the real world. Think of Lola and Michel leaving Nantes at the end of Lola, or Jackie and Jean extracting themselves from the hell of Bay of Angels (1963), or Geneviève exiled from Cherbourg, or Delphine and the fairground people cheerfully leaving Rochefort behind. Of all Demy’s films, only Une chambre breaks this rule and is set within an entirely closed universe, a universe of tragedy rather than fairy tale, from which there is no escape but death.

All his life, Demy preferred real locations to studio sets—even when inventing the magical world of Donkey Skin (1970). First, because an essential part of his art has to do with the gulf between a mundane omnipresent world and the world he conjures up for the settings of his stories. For him, to film in Nantes, Cherbourg, or Rochefort was to invent a new city, a kind of parallel world almost identical to ours but only almost, because it is laid out differently, more vividly colored, and full of people who sing instead of talk, or dance instead of walk.

A second reason has to do with Demy’s penchant for the challenges of mise-en-scène. Like Max Ophuls, one of his idols, and like Orson Welles and many others, he took great pleasure in placing himself in the most difficult conditions so that he could later prove how everything is possible, even the ceaseless movements of the characters and camera in places as cramped as the back shop in Umbrellas. Compelled to work in a studio for the interiors of The Pied Piper (1972), and then for those of his three last films, he was saddened because their all-too-easy comforts seemed to discourage his desire for invention.

We can presume a third reason, equally essential. Recalling the shooting of Umbrellas, Demy told me that, for him, that period was sheer bliss: “It was beyond sublime: the shoot was so high-spirited, and everyone got along so well. Nobody could say good-bye.” What Demy sought was for everyone around him to live exclusively in the world of the film. This was before cell phones and the Internet. They were all far from Paris and their daily concerns, their family life in suspension. This was the dream of a filmmaker who never completely accepted the fact that his crew could return home at the end of a day’s shooting like simple office workers.

Having visited the sets of several Demy films, I see yet another reason for his preference for natural locations. In his mind, it was the vocation of show business people and artists to bring a city out of its torpor. Demy himself never stopped putting this belief into practice, welcoming the townspeople of Nantes to the fairground festival reconstituted for Lola; inviting the residents of Cherbourg to the carnival re-created for Umbrellas; incorporating a children’s choir from Rochefort into the fairground shows and inviting the locals to the party organized on Place Colbert. Also, it was the unemployed of Nantes and local choirs who provided the crowds of workers and riot police in Une chambre. What was striking in all these cases was Demy’s delight in offering the shoot as a gift to the spectators; the kindness with which he managed the relations of his crew with the crowds of onlookers; his concern not to exclude them from an event that was taking place, after all, in their hometown; his patience when they became too insistent and impeded the filming. One example, among many: The scene in Une chambre when Dominique Sanda appears nude in the street under her fur coat was shot at night on a small, dark street behind the municipal theater of Nantes and the brasserie La Cigale, which were featured in Lola. It would have been easy to block access to the street for the throngs of bystanders, which swelled as the shows and movies let out. But Demy wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he allowed them to watch the preparations and rehearsals, and then waited till three o’clock in the morning, after they had all gone home to bed, to shoot the scene. Jacques Demy was at home in Nantes. He was the city’s child even as he reinvented it.