Jacques Demy is remembered as one of the most accessible filmmakers of the French New Wave, the pivotal filmmaking movement of the 1960’s. The director of 21 films, his experimentation as a director was based deeply in the whimsical Hollywood Golden Age, and its colorful musicals and fantasy films that were his inspiration.
Born in Pontchâteau, France, Demy was from a young age entranced with film. He first studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, where he studied fine arts and directed some live and animated short films. Demy continued his studies at the Ecole Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographiques and was assistant to the animator Paul Grimault, and then Georges Rouquier.
His first feature film, Lola (1961) was Demy’s tribute to the Hollywood musical, and it instantly catapulted Demy into the mainstream. Not only was it a successful experiment in style, with a superb attention paid to capturing the details of the iconic imagery that it aspired to, but his attention to character and their emotional states drew in an audience that may have found some of the French New Wave films lacking in substance.
In 1964, Demy directed what many believe is his masterpiece, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Furthering the musical elements he applied in Lola, he set all of the film’s dialogue to music. Also shooting in color, he reached a new height of detail and melodrama, as the film followed two star-crossed lovers who turn out not to have fate on their side. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in 1964, and was also nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards.
Some say Demy’s career peaked with Cherbourg. Although he continued to direct films, he never recaptured the same success with his latter work. Many believed that style began to overtake substance, and the emotional depth of his films became overshadowed by visual spectacle. However, after many critical and financial flops, Demy was awarded the Grand Prix des Arts et Lettres, the lifetime achievement award, after directing the successful, Une Chambre en ville (A Room in Town, 1982).
During his rise as a filmmaker, Demy married fellow accomplished filmmaker Agnès Varda – with whom he would remain married until his death in 1990. Varda spearheaded the restoration of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which continues to enjoy re-releases into various theaters and festivals around the world.