“There are few films I have so longed to make”, said Jacques Demy of Une chambre en ville. “Few I have dreamed of as much as this.” (1) So it seems oddly fitting that this film – which is rapturously romantic and darkly tragic at the same time – is one of the screen’s all-time great odes to desire. An all-singing opéra populaire set in the director’s home city of Nantes, it tells of the impossible love between a striking metal-worker and an unhappily married bourgeoise. A commercial fiasco on its release (and, arguably, Demy’s last artistic success) it shows desire as an emotion that flourishes where it is most denied – that secret longing inside us that cannot, or must not, be fulfilled.
Although it came late in Demy’s career, Une chambre en ville was in fact his oldest and most long-cherished project. The young Jacques first wrote the story as a novel (unpublished, of course) as a student in the early 1950s. A decade later, established as a filmmaker with Lola (1961) and La baie des anges (Bay of Angels, 1963) – but wholly lacking the resources for such a vast and risky project – he next conceived the story as an opera for the stage. Not until the mid-’70s did Une chambre en ville emerge definitively as a film script. The production was first scheduled for 1976, starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Simone Signoret. Yet problems arose when Deneuve, whose singing had been dubbed in three previous Demy films – Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967) and Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin, 1970) – now insisted that she and Depardieu should use their own voices (regardless of the fact that both actors were tone-deaf). Not surprisingly, Demy refused, his stars dropped out and the film collapsed.
The project (and Demy’s career) languished for the rest of the ’70s. Hope returned only when he met a more co-operative and less fractious muse, Dominique Sanda. Sanda, a beautiful ex-model turned movie star, was his first choice to play a transvestite swordswoman in his camp French Revolution romp Lady Oscar (1979). Sadly, she was unavailable – but she did appear a year later in Demy’s one film for French television, La naissance du jour (1980). More important was the fact that Sanda, although she was French, was best known for films made in Italian – notably Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970) and Novecento (1900, 1976) for Bernardo Bertolucci – a language she did not actually speak. Hence she had no qualms whatsoever about being dubbed.
By the early ’80s, Une chambre en ville was a reality again – with an all-new cast and a score by Michel Colombier instead of Demy’s long-term collaborator Michel Legrand. Sanda – once described by Pauline Kael as “a Garbo without depth, a trifling Garbo” (2) – gave what is, perhaps, the one performance of her career to seriously challenge Kael’s view. The most extreme in Demy’s gallery of emotionally extravagant women, her character, Edith, flees from an impotent and sadistic husband. Stark naked underneath her mink coat, she trawls the midnight streets of Nantes in search of anonymous sex. (Her costume, or lack thereof, is an echo of Elizabeth Taylor’s in the iconic opening of Butterfield 8 [Daniel Mann, 1960].) Her love for the working-class François (Richard Berry) is clearly doomed from the outset. “In all of Jacques’s films”, observed Sanda, “it’s the only time when a woman dies for love” (3).
The lurid sexual brutality of Une chambre en ville – in which Michel Piccoli, unable to make love to his wife, wields a razor in place of a penis, and Sanda opens her mink to reveal an exquisite body laced by scars – is a subtext hinted at but never explored in Demy’s earlier films. In Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Danielle Darrieux reads a newspaper item about a woman dismembered by her lover and packed into a suitcase. In the Medieval fairytale The Pied Piper (1972), a glistening white bridal cake splits open to reveal a swarm of rats carrying the bubonic plague. With the murder/suicide at the end of Une chambre en ville, Demy consciously echoed the eroticised “love-death” of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde. “In Les parapluies de Cherbourg, the young girl says ‘I could never live without you’,” recalled Demy. “But when her lover goes off to war, she settles down and marries another man. Here she says ‘I could never live without you’ and she doesn’t. She kills herself. That’s unusual.” (4)
Was it the extreme darkness of the love story that harmed the film commercially in 1982? France in that year was a nation flush with optimism – following the election of a socialist government, led by François Mitterrand, after decades of right-wing rule. Visually, Demy is a world away from the flashy but empty cinéma du look – typified by Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981) and La balance (Bob Swaim, 1982) – that was then coming into vogue. That is not to say the “look” of a Demy film does not matter. The colour palette is as iridescent in Une chambre en ville as it was in Les parapluies de Cherbourg or Les demoiselles de Rochefort. Yet every colour and fabric, every shade of wallpaper on every wall, has been chosen for its precise emotional weight. The blood-red womb of an apartment inhabited by Darrieux – here playing Sanda’s alcoholic, sexually frustrated mother – throbs with all the hues of curdled passion. The pale apple green, festooned with white roses, in the hotel room where Sanda and Berry first consummate their passion, makes us feel the lovers are afloat amid the clouds. Stylistically, Demy is as distinct from Beineix as a Greek tragedy is from a Chanel advertisement.
If Demy’s film seems outmoded or “old-fashioned” in any way, it may be that Une chambre en ville – like so much of his work – can be “read” as an essentially homosexual story in heterosexual guise. Rumours about Demy’s sexuality were not entirely hushed by his marriage to fellow filmmaker Agnès Varda in 1962. In her recent autobiographical film, Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), his widow finally revealed that Demy’s death in 1990 was due to AIDS. Certainly, the basis of Une chambre en ville – an amour fou that ignites while both partners are cruising in a dark street – is remote from most heterosexual experience, but is instantly recognisable to gay men. Indeed, the film evokes Luchino Visconti’s Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957) as a paean to the night city, to the sexual and romantic potential that lurks in darkened doorways or deserted streets. Hence the poignancy of Sanda’s defiant outburst to her cold, tyrannical mother:
Don’t you know what love is? Or passion? Or obsession? Nothing matters anymore. I’m in love for the first time. Words seem so empty to express this feeling. I love his skin, his smell. His strength, his softness, his laugh…. Nothing you can say will make the slightest difference.
Writing these lines, and hearing them spoken by his new muse, is as close as Demy ever came to a public “coming out”.
All this must have seemed a bit quaint, as France in the ’80s saw the advent of overtly “gay” films such as Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982) and L’homme blessé (A Wounded Man, Patrice Chéreau, 1983) – both of which tackled similar themes with a frankness that Demy was unwilling or unable to try. It is not unusual for a film to succeed artistically, yet fail to find its audience, simply because it was out of tune with its time. Indeed, George Cukor’s valedictory film, Rich and Famous (1981), failed in the same year, and for similar reasons.
Yet Demy never did recover from the public’s rejection of Une chambre en ville. His next project with Sanda, Anouchka – an all-singing remake of Anna Karenina – was cancelled when its French distribution deal fell through. Two films that did see the light of day, Parking (1985) and Trois places pour le 26 (Three Places for the 26th, 1988), were marred by artistic uncertainty and – quite possibly, in those days before AZT and combination therapy – by the gradual progression of his illness. Still, Une chambre en ville survives as a darkly magnificent farewell to Demy’s unique and enchanting world. His was films were “as graceful and humane as those of Max Ophuls, as poised between speech and music as Stephen Sondheim” (5). The wonder is not that it ended, tragically, some years before his death. The wonder is that it happened at all.
- Jacques Demy, quoted on the DVD cover of Une chambre en ville, Ciné-Tamaris/Arte Video, Paris, 2008. Translated from French by the author.
- Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down, Marion Boyars, London, 1981, p. 275.
- Dominique Sanda, interviewed in L’univers de Jacques Demy (The Universe of Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, 1993). Translated by the author.
- Demy in an archival interview included in L’univers de Jacques Demy.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 222.
Une chambre en ville/A Room in Town (1982 France 88 mins)
Prod. Co: Progefi/TF1 Films Production/UGC/Top 1 Prod: Christine Gouze-Rénal Dir, Scr: Jacques Demy Phot: Jean Penzer Prod Des: Bernard Evein Ed: Sabine Mamou Mus: Michel Colombier
Cast: Dominique Sanda, Richard Berry, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Fabienne Guyon, Jean-François Stévenin, Jean-Louis Rollan