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The French Film Answer to the Italian Opera:

A Look at Une Chambre en Ville

by Tony Nash

(All Opinions are of the author)

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Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town) R (1982) ****

Dominique Sanda: Edith Langlois Leroyer

Danielle Darrieux: Margot Langlois

Richard Berry: François Guilbaud

Michel Piccoli: Edmond Leroyer

Fabienne Guyon: Violette Pelletier

Anna Gaylor: Madame Pelletier

Jean-François Stevenin: Dambiel

 

Written & Directed by: Jacques Demy

Synopsis: The future of five people unfolds around a series of demonstrations during a Union strike. François, leader of the strikers, initially loves good girl Violette, but finds himself falling for his landlady’s unhappy daughter Edith. Edith, who married husband Edmond in haste, is doing everything to fill the void of unhappiness, but finds new meaning after meeting François. Edith’s mother Margot, a Countess who lost her title, feels stuck in the middle of the foursome.

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Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, Leoncavallo, and…Demy? Jacques Demy, considered the most mainstream and Hollywood of the French Nouvelle Vague Movement filmmakers dedicated one of his late efforts before his death from AIDS to the Hollywood Musical and Italian Opera. Une Chambre, Demy’s attempt to capitalize on the popularity of his popular effort Les Parapluies du Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is nowhere near as excellent or moving as its predecessor, but is still quite enjoyable for its similarities to the classic era of Opera. Demy had a passion for Musicals and brought the medium to a new level with telling compassionate stories with song. The film follows more in the pattern of Opera as everything, including the dialogue, is sung (this came out before the successful Musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Une Chambre is more of an Opera than Cherbourg because Cherbourg lies in the realm of an Operetta, meaning it might still have a sad ending, but it’s not dark, while Une Chambre is an Opera because it deals with unrequited love, and forbidden, tragic, love. Operas have been filmed before, but were done on stage in front of audiences, while Une Chambre was done on sound-stages and on the streets, making it the true first Film Opera.

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The action being centered around a workers strike is really interesting as it not only harkens back to the themes of Opera, but also to a relevant issue at the time it was filmed. Activists like Cesar Chavez in the late 1970’s were making real strides in bettering conditions for both standard workers and specialty workers, and the 1980’s saw many Unions and Labor Leaders really pushing for better pay, better hours, and the conditions that began with Chavez. Opera also dealt with breaking with conformity in some way and doing what they want in spite of the risks. That Demy deals with a socially relevant issue of the time was new for him, as his films didn’t normally go in that realm, and while he doesn’t go too deep into it, many viewers of the time probably had cathartic experiences in one way or another regarding the issue surrounding the events of the piece. Since so few Operas were done after the 1930’s, the film is a curious “what-if” had Operas adapted to the modern era. While the workers strike is an essential part of the plot, it’s the people who exist within it that are the driving force of the film, which is the absolute theme of any and all Operas. While usually ordinary people end up in extraordinary situations that end badly, almost every character in Demy’s film is already broken in some way, another first for him, taking the Opera to a different dimension.

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Dominique Sanda, who inherited the sex symbol status after Brigitte Bardot retired to pursue other interests, is wonderful in the role of Edith. A harkening back to the classic tragic heroines of Opera, Edith is a lovely young lady, hurt by several years of a loveless marriage. She spends a good majority of the film stark naked, covered only by a mink coat, as she has spent what money she had, and refused anymore by her slinky husband. Her royal heritage destroyed after her mother married a commoner, Edith is a lost soul looking for anything and everything (sans drugs and alcohol) to fill the void, not knowing anymore what she wants from life. When she first appears she has lost the zest for life, but only when she spies François, her mother’s tenant. Something in her is rekindled and a renewed passion is evident later on. Finally gaining independence, she decides to break free from her crazy husband, but tragedy strikes, leading to a spiral of consequences and regrets. Sanda’s serious face, sorrowful looking eyes, and deep voice, was perfect for Edith as it reflected the harshness for which the character has seemingly lived her whole life. Numerous popular characters from Operas resemble Edith, but there are far too many to name to give an exemplary comparison of.

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Richard Berry, a popular star of the 70’s, 80’s, and partial 90’s, is quite good as day laborer/activist François. First and foremost concerned with giving his fellow workers better pay and better conditions, François at fist glance is a pretty normal, likable guy. He cares deeply for girlfriend Violette, but isn’t sure yet of marrying her, and, unlike most of his generation, gives his bourgeois landlady respect. As the film progresses, it becomes clear François is in a rut in terms of his personal life, seemingly going through the motions. When he meets Edith after saving her from her husband, François suddenly realizes she is what has been missing in his life, and wants to be with her forever. Normally this would make him a cad, but because he doesn’t hesitate in telling Violette what’s transpired it at least reminds the audience he’s an honorable man who won’t lie. When the time comes to stand up for their rights, François leads the charge, knowing it could mean his death, as the authorities have made clear they’ll use force.  Like with Edith, many male leads of the great Operas are like François, but again, far too many are around to give an exemplary comparison.

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Michel Piccoli, one of France’s preeminent character actors, is memorable as Edmond, Edith’s depressed, but controlling husband. Realizing early on he could never satisfy her in any respect, Edmond chose to deny her certain necessities in order to keep her. When she finally breaks free of him through François, Edmond loses his last shred of sanity, as in his own way, in spite of his cruelty, he loved Edith. In true Operatic fashion of the jaded lover or the heartless antagonist, Edmond commits the ultimate sin in order to gain revenge. Even though he isn’t on screen very long, Edmond’s presence is one of the key elements to the outcome of the film, and his actions bring about changes, many bad, some good, to not only the people around him, but to people he hasn’t even met. Another character in the film with far too many contemporaries in Opera to compare to in one sitting.

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Danielle Darrieux, a legend of both French and American cinema, is fantastic as Edith’s dowager mother Margot. At one time a Countess, but defrocked of her title because she married a commoner, she still manages to maintain a stoic dignity in spite of losing everything. She loves her daughter very much, and has respect for activist tenant François, but at the same time can’t help but be uncertain of the consequences of their decision to be together. She tries her best to play mediator to them, and even to the unhinged Edmond, but realizes quickly it’s all in vain. Realizing the chaos to ensue, all Margot can do is watch as everything around her slowly come apart. Darrieux, who exhibited regality like the character, is very much like the loving mother or guardian of many a great Opera, and like with the others, there’s far too many to mention in one piece.

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The only flaw with the film is that Demy had singers dub over the voices of the actors singing. Why Demy didn’t hire singers to play the roles is uncertain, but this in a way hinders the film, as you know it’s not the voices of the actors who are supposed to be singing. An actor like Dominique Sanda, whose voice is very evocative, is denied that opportunity by having their voice taken out of the occasion. The one consolation with Michel Piccoli, is that the singer who dubbed him for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) dubs him again here. Danielle Darrieux is the only actor of the whole cast who sings herself, while everybody else is clearly lip-syncing to another performer. Famous actors would certainly bring in the crowds, but that whole idea seems mute when they’re not even allowed to sing themselves, unless of course the range of the melodies and voice types are beyond their capabilities. Other than this, the film is quite good and well worth multiple viewings.

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A well done script, fine acting, a memorable score and singing, and great direction from Jacques Demy make one of his last films a fine achievement. Opera lovers will rejoice in how Demy finely hones all the elements that make Operas so majestic and fantastic, and how Demy flawlessly transitions the art form from stage to film. Even if audiences aren’t into Operas or Musicals, the compelling story and human interest characters are more than enough to draw the crowds in and provide good spectacle and entertainment. An all around good film, even if it’s dark in story to a degree, that almost anyone can relate to in someway. Not Demy’s classic Cherbourg by a long shot, Une Chambre is a decent enough effort that’s worth the praise of a talented director who put all his passions and drive into every project he envisioned. In a period where Demy’s type of film no longer had a place, he managed to pull out one more that sparked interest in a new generation.

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(I do recommend this film highly and recommend getting the Criterion Collection Blu Ray of the film. Right now it’s only a part of the Jacques Demy Box Set, but it’s really worth the money as Demy made a slew of wonderful films that deserved to be checked out.)

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google images and their respective owners

For more information

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084843/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Une_chambre_en_ville

https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Jacques-Demy-Blu-ray-DVD/dp/B00JPUUQ5A/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1534907331&sr=1-1&keywords=jacques+demy+criterion&dpID=51ohbicCH6L&preST=_SY300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/1055-the-essential-jacques-demy

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview

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