Une Chambre en Ville
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Jacques Demy, working in the unexpected mold of such directors as Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, took the French New Wave in a different direction. Unlike his more irreverent brothers in the New Wave, Alain Resnais and Jean Luc Godard, Demy seemed uninterested in reinventing the movies or approaching genre from a different angle. But that's only how it seemed. In fact, Demy reworked the musical to fit his own set of rules and, in the process, became one of the more successful directors of the French New Wave, even if it was more for one movie than any other.
That one movie came in 1964, when Demy scored an international hit with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring a beautiful and enticing Catherine Deneuve and young newcomer Nino Castelnuovo. This should have made him a household name but when his next movie was released, lightning didn't strike twice. Nonetheless, Demy stuck to his vision and that next movie was at least a minor hit, 1967's The Young Girls of Rochefort, starring Deneuve again with Oscar® winner George Chakiris and cinema legends Gene Kelly and Danielle Darrieux. Demy immediately undercut the expectations of many when he dubbed Kelly's voice, one of the more distinctive voices in musical cinema. Demy gave the audience the legend but gave him someone else's voice.
By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville (1982), Demy had made the all-singing musical his specialty. But more than that, Demy was willing to take the musical into darker regions, countering the tragedy with music. He worked again with Danielle Darrieux, the beautiful and passionate star of the masterpiece, Earrings of Madame de... (1953), this time playing Margot Langlois, a widow who rents to a border participating in a worker's strike. The strike is a face-off between steel workers and management and Demy uses it to stage a mesmerizing opening sequence.
As with most of the movie, Demy runs counterpoint after counterpoint to throw off audience expectations and thrust striking (no pun intended) imagery at the viewer. The opening credits and their lead in to the opening sequence are no different and, indeed, set the stage. The credits roll up the screen in front of a beautiful sunrise over the Loire River to the gently orchestrated "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," in muted colors except for the sun which changes from yellow to red before our eyes. After this gorgeous, picturesque scene has lulled the audience into a mood befitting a fairy tale love story, the imagery changes to a stark scene and the color runs from the screen. In black and white, we see policemen in riot gear standing face to face with workers and their families. From a window of an apartment across the street, we see Margot looking on. The police and the workers begin shouting, each side talking past the other. Only they're not talking, they're singing. And the words they're singing?
Break it up! Go home! We're here to fight for our rights! For our wives and children. Stop protesting! Disperse! Cops, pigs, scum, bums!
In one breathtaking opening sequence, Demy has subverted the expectations of the audience on all counts. A beautiful, peaceful scene leads to a black and white standoff between strikers and police before leading to an all out physical clash, all scored to music. This is a statement by Demy, not just to the audience but to his fellow French New Wave directors as well, who characterized him, especially Godard, as being more in line with celebrating Hollywood genre than illuminating it, that he was no simple imitator of Hollywood but an innovator as well. In many ways, this opening sequence, with so many ideas running in contrast to each other, is the most daring thing Demy ever did and the most boldly stated.
As soon as the scene ends, we move to Margot's apartment where Francois Guilbaud (Richard Berry) returns from the chaos below only to argue again, this time with Margot over who's right and who's wrong. Along with this is rudimentary dialogue, all sung to music. Everything from "would you like some wine" to "can you stay for lunch?" to "no, I have an appointment." What that means is little room for big numbers or stand alone songs. Instead, the movie develops a cadence and despite every line being sung, stops feeling like a musical and starts feeling more like a drama with a rhythmic nervous system.
The story itself is melodramatic, involving pregnant girlfriends abandoned, wives of rich merchants walking the streets for money and clothes and a tragic romance that can know passion for only a single night. The intertwining of the character's lives and the coincidental meetings would make Dickens proud, as would the undertones of class warfare throughout. The story involves a fight for rights but also a yearning for love and meaning in an essentially meaningless existence for workers and their families living on the edge of society. That Demy wrapped it up in a musical at once informs and subverts the process. That he takes the musical and strips it of big production numbers in favor of persistently sung dialogue takes the musicals of classic Hollywood and turns them on their ear. And that he does all of it by contrasting passionate love with stark and brutal imagery shows Demy was more than a loyal genre director. Like his brothers in the French New Wave, Demy was out to breathe new life into the medium by taking one of its most beloved genres and stretching it to its dramatic limitations. He succeeded and, in many ways, Une Chambre en Ville may be his most mature work. It is certainly among his best.
Director: Jacques Demy
Producer: Christine Gouze-Rénal
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Cinematography: Jean Penzer
Costume Design: Rosalie Varda
Music: Michel Colombier
Film Editor: Sabine Mamou
Production Design: Bernard Evein
Cast: Dominique Sanda (Edith Leroyer), Danielle Darrieux (Margot Langlois), Richard Berry (François Guilbaud), Michel Piccoli (Edmond Leroyer), Fabienne Guyon (Violette Pelletier), Anna Gaylor (Madame Pelletier), Jean-François Stévenin (Dambiel), Jean-Louis Rolland (Ménager).
By Greg Ferrara