In the sense that “The Sound of Music” is not considered a reliable source for lessons about Nazism or that “My Fair Lady” is a profound analysis of class struggle, musicals do not generally spring to mind when considering the great achievements of French cinema. However, the National Film Center exhibition offering a retrospective overview of film director Jacques Demy’s career is so entrancing it’s not hard to see why the reputation of this auteur has been reassessed in recent years.
Demy may have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)” in 1964, but opinion has always been split as to how seriously his stylized candy-colored vision should be taken. His peers — Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais and other members of the French New Wave and Left Bank group — were more obviously radical in how they attacked conventional storytelling and bourgeois directors professing to be anti-bourgeois. In this context Demy’s attachment to the glamour of Hollywood musicals and the reverie of spectacle, seemingly for its own sake, has attracted charges of being frivolous and sentimental.
Time can be kind to kitsch. However, even taking this into account, it is revealing to consider Demy’s romantic operas of everyday life and reworked fairy tales in an age when cinema is dominated by trying to make the fantasy of comic book characters fighting giant robots/monsters as earnest and realistic as possible. It’s also likely that Demy’s playfulness should receive a sympathetic reception in Japan, which gave rise to the culture of cuteness, especially given that one of his films, “Lady Oscar”, is based on the hit 1970s manga “Berusaiyu no Bara” (“The Rose of Versailles”) by Riyoko Ikeda.
Demy’s choice of this historical romance revolving around the fictional female character Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, a girl who is brought up as a male and becomes the commander of the Royal Guard at Versailles, is indicative of the director’s atypical exploration of gender roles. In the hyper-masculine world of film direction, this was a different kind of radicalism and may be another reason why Demy, who was either gay or bisexual depending on who you read, is being reassessed.
The success of “Le Monde en-chante de Jacques Demy” as an exhibition is in the almost visceral way that the director’s vivacity and invention are transmitted. As actual film footage is only a small part of the display, this is due more to the designers, musicians and photographers who surrounded Demy, but also to the artistic director/curator of the exhibition, who has included, among other things, exuberant movie posters, vintage photography, record sleeves and a stereoscopic View-Master, the sum total of which is both stunning and provocative.
“Le Monde en-chante de Jacques Demy” at the National Film Center runs till Dec. 14; open 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; ¥210. Closed Mon. and Sun. www.momat.go.jp/english/nfc/index.html