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  • Ravi Swami

"Une Chambre En Ville", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1982

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

Jacques Demy's 1982 film "Une Chambre En Ville" (Eng: "A Room In The Town") qualifies it to be "Late Demy" and if not a return to form following his early successes, is a return to his roots, both in the context of the intentions of the French New Wave and neo-realism and also his roots in the town of Nantes, where he spent the early formative parts of his life, as depicted in Agnes Varda's "Jacquot De Nantes".

In the previous review of "Peau d'ane" / "Donkey Skin" I noted the fact that both he and his producer, Mag Bodard, expressed some dissatisfaction over "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" many years after its' successful release and this film could be viewed almost as a remake of the film, with a more sombre, dark tone and it feels like the complete flip-side of "Les Demoiselles", using the same device of actors singing their lines throughout and the almost cartoon-like stylization in the art-direction through the use of primary colours to denote character traits and mood.

Set against the backdrop of a factory workers revolt in Nantes in the 50's that Demy himself witnessed and that was violently put down by the local police, it revolves around a young factory worker, François Guilbaud (Richard Berry) who rents a room in the apartment of a wealthy middle class widow, Margot Langlois (Danielle Darrieux) who sympathizes with the workers' plight.

François is homeless and too poor to marry his sweetheart, a shopgirl, Violette Pelletier (Fabienne Guyon) and one evening is accosted by a prostitute wearing nothing but a fur coat, Édith Leroyer (Dominique Sanda), and spends the night with her unaware that she is in fact the married daughter of his landlady, Madame Langlois.

The two fall hopelessly in love with each other, pledging to remain loyal for the rest of their lives after spending the night together in a hotel but there are complications when Édith's jealous husband, Edmond (Michel Piccoli), who is aware of her other life of a prostitute, threatens to kill her and her lover. Edmond is the owner of a television rental shop in the Passage Pommeraye which is also the location seen in Demy's first feature film, "Lola".

When François discovers that Edith is M. Langlois' daughter, he asks her to move back into the apartment he is staying in, much to her mothers' disgust since Edith is still married to Edmond.

Edmond tracks Édith down to M.Langlios' apartment but she is not in, and after an argument with his mother-in-law, storms out after threatening to kill Édith with a cut-throat razor.

Meanwhile, Violette has been searching in vain for François to give him some happy news, and when she eventually finds him at the apartment with Édith, the two go for a walk where she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. François tells her that he is in love with Edith and she is heartbroken, promising to never see him again.

Édith returns to her husbands' shop one evening, armed with a small pistol and expecting trouble, to collect some things after she and François decide to move out of her mothers' apartment to live together. Edmond is in the process of shutting up shop and snatches this opportunity to get his revenge on Édith by locking the door and so blocking her escape.

The two argue and Edmond threatens her with the cut-throat razor while she pulls out the pistol to defend herself but then Edmond implores her not to leave him since he loves her despite treating her badly, and then cuts his own throat.

Horrified, Édith escapes through a skylight in a backroom of the shop and returns to her mothers' apartment covered in blood.

Outside the apartment, a riot erupts as workers amass against the heavily armed ranks of police and François leaves Édith with her mother to join them at the front. The police charge the protesters after they chant slogans and in the ensuing melee François is mortally wounded and then carried to M. Langlois' nearby apartment where he dies in Édiths' arms. Edith produces the pistol she was carrying and shoots herself in front of her horrified mother and the film ends with the two lovers in each others' arms.

The closing shot is of the gutter outside the apartment as notices announcing the protest swirl along it in the rain.

There's no doubt that this is Demy's darkest film and generally held to be his least successful and least popular for that reason since the earlier films that made his name had become national treasures by the time of its' release and frankly speaking, the subject matter and premise didn't grab me particularly. However, it is a clever inversion of the joyous tone of "Les Demoiselles", in particular, combined with the recurrent themes present in his work of the difficulties women face in making their life choices within a restrictive male-oriented society.

Abandoned single mothers, domineering and controlling husbands (in the form of Piccoli's, red-haired impotent Edmond), irresponsible young men and most striking of all, Dominique Sanda's "Édith", placed centre-stage like the female character's in all of Demy's films, who spends most of the film naked apart from a fur coat and is the polar opposite of the virginal twins of "Les Demoiselles" and "Geneviève" from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and whose physical presence in the film is very reminiscent of that of the heroine in one of his early short films, "Le bel indifférent", played by the striking Jeanne Allard, a film that is coincidentally also centered on a failing relationship and is staged entirely in a single set representing an apartment, likewise painted in the bright primaries present in many of his films.

The symbolic use of colour is very noticeable in the scenes set in Edmond's shop, where everything is painted in shades of dull green, along with Edmond's suit, contrasting vividly with his red hair, to suggest his simmering jealousy.

The other theme of the film is that of the workers' protest, something that Demy felt strongly about in line with his political beliefs, an aspect which rarely found expression in his films, and he deliberately subverts the almost unrealistic, optimistic tone of "Les Demoiselles" without ever really abandoning it entirely since it represented a stage in his own life and is, like "Une Chambre En Ville", very much a reflection of the time in which it was made.

The film has an operatic quality reinforced by the slightly exaggerated performances and in comparison to his earlier musical films, feels a little stilted in terms of the actors' delivery. The film also marked a break from his long-standing collaboration with Michel Legrand, arguably the other half of a successful creative partnership, though they reunited for his last two films.

Having watched it, I would put aside any doubts you may have if you are a fan of his work since it is an interesting experiment in adapting the style he employed for his early successes to tell a different kind of story with a bleaker and perhaps more realistic tone.

"Une Chambre En Ville", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1982

Criterion Channel.


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