UCFS Screening # 12: Everyday Songs of the City: Demy, Tati and the American Musical

Loosely associated with the French New Wave, yet, not considered a key member of the movement, Jacques Demy’s 1960’s films are among the most energetic films of the decade. In particular, The Young Girls of Rochefort (France, 1967), Demy’s follow up to Cannes winning The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (France, 1964), provides a dazzling, kaleidoscopic experience, that is equally indebted to both the Hollywood musical and the film’s of Jacques Tati.
On the surface The Young Girls of Rochefort may seem almost inseparably connected to Hollywood musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanly Donen, USA, 1952). The film’s bright pastel color scheme and casting of Hollywood musical star Gene Kelly seem to denote the genre at every turn. However, the influence of films such as Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, France, 1958) by the French director Jacques Tati exert an equally strong force on the film.
In particular, Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and Tati’s Mon Oncle deploy a similar interplay between new modern space and older urban spaces. Much of Demy’s film takes place in a central plaza in Rochefort, this space is in many ways not dissimilar to the spaces of old Paris present in Mon Oncle. The plaza has the same brick architecture and a sense of the common street location that permeates the old Paris of Tati’s film. Yet, at one end of the plaza is a café defined by its modernist design. The café has large windows and reflective gold surfaces, denoting its connection to a new modernist style of life and architecture. This building resembles the new Paris of Tati’s Mon Oncle, with its clearly defined lines and open design. The juxtaposition of these modes of design denotes a similar level of likeness between the Demy and Tati’s filmic worlds.
Tati and Demy are also concerned with the absurdity of the everyday life, the moments of everyday activity that film makes surreal and entertaining. In Mon Oncle the everyday process of cooking a steak is rendered as a complex and absurd task, fraught with complicated machines hindering the process at every turn. The same could be said for Rochfort, which turns simple moments such as walking down the street or buying sheet music in to elaborate performances of song and dance.
This brings us to the issue of music–Demy’s Rochfort is a musical–but what about Tati? The answer is much more complex then I have time for here, but let me attempt to summarize. Tati’s two film worlds, Old Paris and New Paris are defined by their sounds, one mechanical (new Paris) and the other musical (old Paris). While some scholars have argued that new Paris’s soundscape is actually Musique Concrete–the song of machines– I’m not sure if this is correct. However, what I do know is old Paris is defined by a song, people sing it on the street, it’s heard over telephones and it always exists in the soundtrack. The song is the song of the city, it is knowm to all, but sub-consciously, a modulation on Kepler’s Music of the Spheres. In this sense, Tati’s world is a world of the musical, a sub-conscious musical that exists just below the surface of the film. All Demy has done is bring this to the forefront–the song of the city–or at least Demy’s song is know to all it, is heard by all, and all participate in its production. The experience of the everyday is celebrated, sung and performed in Rochfort much like it is in Mon Oncle.
While I will leave the rest of the experience up to you the viewer, I feel safe in concluding that Demy’s world of sudden romances and chance connections is not the same world as Tati’s, but certainly born out of the same joy for the pleasures of everyday life.
By Joel Sutherland
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