When I was a freshman, I saw two Jacques Demy musicals at the IU Cinema. They were The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. I saw them on Saturdays that were a week apart. My friends and I sat near the front both times, the better to absorb the spellbinding mixture of bright colors and catchy music. Those experiences formed the bedrock for my adult love of musicals. The visual and aural delights that Demy and composer Michel Legrand brought to the screen showed me that this genre could be as entertaining and thought-provoking as any other.
Demy has been teaching this lesson to audiences since 1964, when The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was released. A contemporary filmmaker who has taken this lesson to heart is Damien Chazelle, the director of the hit musical La La Land. That movie is heavily influenced by the two Demy musicals that I saw at the IU Cinema. It takes their use of color, stunning camerawork, and melancholy sensibility and reworks them to tell a story set in a modern Los Angeles. Examining the myriad ways that Demy influenced La La Land is an excellent exercise in how directors can pay homage to the artists who shape them.
Both cinema scholars and people who have just seen their first Demy film will tell you that his eye for color was extraordinary. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy makes great use of vivid primary colors to accentuate the joy that the central couple, Guy and Geneviève, feel towards each other. In sadder sequences, such as when Guy has to leave for military service, the colors become more muted to better reflect this sadder emotional state.
This is somewhat similar to the color progression of Mia’s costumes in La La Land. At the beginning of the film, as she begins her relationship with Sebastian and tries to succeed as an actor, her clothes are mostly monochromatic shades of bright blue or yellow. As the film progresses and her frustrations grow, her clothes dull to shades of grey and white. This was an intentional decision by Mary Zophres, the film’s costume designer, to show her increasing maturity. It’s a great detail that reveals the preoccupation with the power of color that Chazelle and his collaborators inherited from Demy.
One of the ways that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg differs from traditional musicals is that it barely features any dancing. This helps ground it more deeply in the rhythms of everyday life, and makes it as realistic as a movie where the characters sing their lines can be. There is a type of dancing in this film, but it is performed by the camera and not the characters. The camera tracks and swirls around its environments and the characters as though it has a mind of its own. This roving camerawork is taken to a delightful extreme in The Young Girls of Rochefort, which also has sequences that more than make up for the lack of dancing in Demy’s previous film. Even a simple action such as crossing the street is depicted as a showstopper in one fast-paced, bravura take. This fast-paced mobile camerawork gives some excellent energy to the stories that Demy tells.
The mobile cinematography that Demy favored in his musicals clearly influenced Chazelle’s decision to shoot much of La La Land in what he calls “lyrical long takes.” The most acclaimed one is what looks like a single shot showing a dance number on a freeway with over 100 dancers. That sequence, which Chazelle notes was influenced by the dance choreography of the opening number of The Young Girls of Rochefort, is actually 2-3 shots stitched together. Some of my favorite roving long takes in La La Land take place in some of the less ambitious sequences. One example is when Sebastian talks with his sister in his apartment near the beginning of the film. Most filmmakers would cut from setup to setup, but Chazelle’s camera languidly drifts through the apartment as the characters act out their scene. This makes you pay closer attention to the sequence, which contains a lot of valuable exposition about Sebastian’s character. It is as rhythmic and immersive as the long takes that Demy used to help bring his visions of Cherbourg and Rochefort to life.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort are remembered for being some of the most joyful musicals ever made. This is partly true. Their bright, pop art style colors and intricate camera movements can make the most surly viewers smile. But from a thematic viewpoint, they are heartbreaking. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg deals with loss and has an ending so sad that it left one of the subjects of the documentary Cinemania weeping through the streets of New York City. The Young Girls of Rochefort is not as heartbreaking, but it does deal with the hidden pain that comes from missing your chance to meet someone who could change your life. La La Land shares this sense of candy-colored pain. Mia faces career frustrations and the fear that she will never succeed. Sebastian struggles to open his own club. They also deal with the unrealized potential of their relationship in a fantasy sequence that combines the sense of loss from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with the pain of missed meetings from The Young Girls of Rochefort. This world may have a lot of singing and dancing, but it is not for the faint of heart.
Demy’s spirit haunts La La Land like a genial ghost. His love of vibrant colors, elaborate camera movements, and heartbreaking themes inform many aspects of Chazelle’s critically and financially successful film. The most important thing that they share, however, is what noted satirist Terry Southern said was the most important thing in writing: “the capacity to astonish.” It might be hard to suspend your disbelief that all of the characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are singing, or that hundreds of people would get out of their cars and dance on a freeway in La La Land. But if you are willing to enjoy these three films, and do so on their plane of reality, then you will feel as engrossed and invigorated as I did when I first encountered the films of Monsieur Demy.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg directed by Jacques Demy screened at IU Cinema in August 2014 as part of the City Lights Film Series. The Young Girls of Rochefort directed by Jacques Demy screened in September 2014 as part of the George Chakiris film series. Actor George Chakiris was present for the screening. He also shared stories about his career during a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture and following a screening of West Side Story. La La Land, winner of seven Golden Globes, is currently in theaters nationwide.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.