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An American in Paris, the kind of Hollywood musical that inspired French director Jacques Demy.
An American in Paris, the kind of Hollywood musical that inspired French director Jacques Demy.

Cinematheque salutes Jacques Demy: a retrospective that sings and dances Add to ...

Gotta Sing

For the late French director Jacques Demy (1931-1990), whose terminally underappreciated career is the subject of an essential Cinematheque Ontario career retrospective running at the Bell Lightbox to July 20, the Hollywood musical was a state of grace.

Even when people weren’t actually singing or dancing in his movies – figures as luminous as Anouk Aimée, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac – so intense was their passionate yearning, it felt like they might burst into song at any moment. And so, when Gene Kelly himself turns up smiling radiantly into the camera part way through the fully-fledged high-kicking musical The Young Girls of Rochefort (tunes courtesy of the brilliant Michel Legrand), it feels as if heaven itself has fallen on France’s Atlantic Coast.

Although a contemporary of the directors who made up the French New Wave – not only was Demy a friend of Jean-Luc Godard, they even shared the same cinematographer (Raoul Coutard) for their debut features – Demy never fit comfortably into that school’s countercultural curriculum. Although he shared the nouvelle vague’s fascination with all things Hollywood, Demy demonstrated none of his cohorts’ intellectual ambivalence about how American movies corrupted one’s sense of cultural integrity. He was a romantic of the highest order, which meant anything that let the heart out was fair game. Gotta sing, gotta dance.

One of those directors whose work benefits from being seen as a whole, Demy created a fantastically hermetic world in which many of his characters reappear throughout his career, sometimes singing, occasionally dancing, sometimes in eye-popping colour, sometimes in sombre black and white, but always expressing a longing for the kind of deliverance only a loopy devotion to the cinema of pure physical sensation can provide.

Which isn’t to say his movies surrender any of their distinctly French character. On the contrary, movies such as Lola, La baie des anges (June 28), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (June 29) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (June 30) are as French as fresh pastry. It’s just that they see in Hollywood movies, and musicals especially, a means of vaulting over pain and longing that transcends everything: politics, culture, desire, even mortality itself. To sing and dance in Demy’s movies is to let the soul soar above it all.

The Leopard’s Spots

Among the more riveting reminiscences you’ll find in Giuseppe (Cinema Paradiso) Tornatore’s documentary The Last Leopard, is the story of how Goffredo Lombardo (1920-2005) – the legendarily fearless Italian movie producer who brought much of the defining Italian postwar cinema to the world – reacted when he heard the news he was banned from the set of the movie from which Tornatore’s absorbing portrait of him takes its title.

It was called The Leopard, and making it, in 1963, was the greatest risk of this notoriously risky producer’s career. (Among other filmmakers, Lombardo nurtured the careers of Tornatore, Dario Argento, Ermanno Olmi and Luchino Visconti). No movie in Italian history had been so expensive to make, nor had any had a stormier public production history. The director, Visconti, had run the movie wildly over budget with his insistence on matters such as the hand-made authenticity even of the movie’s curtain fabrics, and the country was laughing at the fact that it had taken some 2,000 extras to depict the very same historical uprising – Giuseppe Garibaldi’s – that in reality only involved 1,000 citizens. But most controversial was the casting in the lead role of the decidedly non-Italian Hollywood movie star Burt Lancaster, which to many amounted to an act of cultural outrage.

And then came the call to Lombardo from Visconti, informing the producer that he would stop filming entirely if he dared set foot on the set. As the tale is recalled in Tornatore’s film, Lombardo took the news quietly. Although he realized the movie was unlikely to ever make back its investment, and that Titanus, the company he’d struggled to build almost single-handedly, was verging on collapse, he accepted his humiliation as the price of producing great art.

It’s the kind of act, at once foolhardy and stirring, that recurs throughout this account of Lombardo’s long and bumpy career, and it reminds you that sometimes it’s the worst businessmen who make the best movies. As a number of The Last Leopard’s interviewees tell Tornatore, Lombardo’s greatest failing as a producer was also his greatest asset as a patron: He produced movies he really wanted to see.

The Last Leopard screens July 1 at the Bell Lightbox as part of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival.

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