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First As Tragedy - Jacques Demy's "A Room In Town" (France, 1982)

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‘A Room In Town’ screens as part of the "Jacques Demy: Heart of the New Wave" series at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, February 22nd at 3:00 p.m. and Thursday, February 27th at 6:00 p.m.

Jacques Demy’s A Room In Town (Une Chambre En Ville) (France, 1982) is another of Demy’s operatic renderings of life, love and fate. Like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) before it, the dialogue is completely sung. The previous two films were nice surprises for me – I liked then far more than I would have imagined, being somewhat ambivalent towards a great deal of musical theater. But I’m fonder of opera; the complexities and beauty of the musical style, and the more expressive passions on display, always seemed, to me, like it was aspiring to more. The successful opera production can be rapturous in ways that I’ve never encountered in the musical, even the musicals I really like. And Demy’s own operatically-styled work here is faithful to the depth of emotion that the stylization allows, but transplants those methods and structures to stories of everyday people in smaller, but no less moving stories.

A Room In Town introduces us to François Guilbaud (Richard Berry), a machinist/laborer working in Nantes. His factory is on strike, and he dutifully joins his fellow workers in demonstrations for their rights. But the absence of income is putting a crimp in his living arrangements (he rents a small room in the home of Margot Langlois [the regal Danielle Darrieux], the widow of a retired French Army colonel) and his relationship with Violette (Fabienne Guyon), an earnest and pleasant working-class girl who lives with her mother. He refers to Madame Langlois as ‘The Baroness,’ and sees her as a symbol of how the bourgeoisie takes the realities of working life in the lower classes for granted. Madame Langlois’ son has died recently, sadly, but she still maintains connections, of a sort, with her willful daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda), who seems to think less of her mother than even François does. Edith has recently married Edmond (Michel Piccoli), who runs a small TV and electronics business, and the early indications are that between Edmond’s petulant jealousies, his miserliness, his disappointing prowess in the boudoir, and Edith’s self-serving, mercurial indulgence, the marriage is doomed from the start. With François' self-image slowly spiraling downward, he confides in his good worker/friend Dambiel (the terrific French character actor Jean-François Stévenin) that he’s just not up for continuing his courtship of Violette. But one of those twists of fate that only happens in movies and operas occurs – he meets Edith, who is trolling for men she can use to assuage her disgust with Edmond, and they have a one-night fling that turns into l’amour fou. Mutually smitten, they both resolve that they’ll never leave each other’s sides. It’s only after they acknowledge their mutual love for each other that François learns that Edith is the daughter his landlady despairs about, and the unhappy spouse in the marriage Madame Langlois has described to him. Meanwhile, Violette happens across Dambiel while in search of François, and informs him that she’s happily pregnant. François is sure to marry her now, right?

Some of the moral dilemmas and ambiguities that surfaced in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg were circumstantial – Guy’s conscription into the service coincides with the appearance of Roland the jeweler, and Geneviève’s dilemma of love vs. security is a rough choice for her. And Guy’s post-service life with his lingering injury, as well, stacks the deck against him in ways where we understand his bitterness and resentment. But A Room In Town’s characters all seem to function according to their own particular character flaws, rather than as victims of complicated circumstance. François’ growing indifference to Violette and his subsequent bedazzling with Edith seem disturbingly arbitrary, especially in view of the patrician arrogance that Dominique Sanda chooses to manifest in Edith’s character. Structurally, it’s an effective prelude-to-tragedy triangle to set up dramatically, but I can’t honestly say I bought into much of it. We’re far more sympathetic to the people they’re disappointing – Madame Langlois and Violette – than we are hopeful that things will work out for the two of them. I think some of that discomfort is part of Demy’s point – Edmond’s fate casts an even darker tone to the proceedings, and the conclusion is a death-and-despair-fueled sequence worthy of Verdi, save for the fact that I, by this time, was no longer empathetically invested in the fates of François or Edith. But instead of lingering on the human reactions to the tragedies we’ve just witnessed, in the room, Demy quickly cuts to the arrival of the ambulance that was called earlier, making its way down the disheveled street where the striking workers have just been put down. Apparently, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Ultimately, I don’t think the film works all that well. But I have an enormous amount of appreciation for Demy’s experiments in, and high aspirations towards, expanding cinematic narrative form; if anyone else was making films like this, I’m sure not aware of it. Demy isn’t afraid to bring a real Edouard Manet frankness to François and Edith’s initial couplings, and Piccoli’s Edmond traffics in some near-psychotic excess. But Demy is still consistently committed to his romantic and humanistic better angels. The music here is composed by Michel Colombier rather than Michel Legrand (who did Cherbourg and Rochefort); we lose some of the more memorable melodies and melancholy jazziness – Legrand was a great composer, but Colombier has a more Richard Strauss-ian feel for lush orchestration and smooth transitions between tonally different narrative sequences and specific characters. He even makes the idea of singing strike-breaking police riot squads credible, which is no small accomplishment. It’s a fascinating film that doesn’t show up very often, and an instructive illustration of how many singularly great ideas Demy had in him throughout his career – even his less successful efforts are well worth checking out.

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