CINÉSALON: UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE (A ROOM IN TOWN) (Jacques Demy, 1982)
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Tuesday, February 11, $13, 4:00 & 7:30
From the very opening of Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town), French New Wave director Jacques Demy announces that the 1982 musical melodrama is going to be something a little different. As a rising sun changes color over a construction site across the Loire River, what appear to be closing credits run up the screen, set to Michel Colombier’s romantic score, as if the film is ending. But Demy and cinematographer Jean Penzer are only getting started, shifting from black-and-white to color to black-and-white again as they cut to the hard streets of 1955 Nantes, where a shipyard strike is under way. Riot police are in a stand-off with hundreds of male and female strikers, characters on both sides singing instead of talking and shouting — in a scene that eerily evokes Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, which came thirty years later. Soon the intricate plot unfolds, as the striking, and broke, François Guilbaud (Richard Berry), who is renting a room from former baroness Margot Langlois (Danielle Darrieux) and dating doe-eyed Violette Pelletier (Fabienne Guyon), instantly falls for femme fatale Edith Leroyer (Dominique Sanda), Mme. Langlois’s recently married daughter, who is already fed up with her impotent cheapskate of a husband, television salesman Edmond Leroyer (Michel Piccoli). The over-the-top drama plays out in wonderfully garish rooms of deep, intoxicating colors, which are echoed by Rosalie Varda’s (daughter of Demy and Agnès Varda) costumes, which even go so far as to have Violette wearing violet and Edith going bare beneath her luxurious fur coat, with no one changing clothes over the course of the two days in which the story takes place. As the strike continues, the main characters connect with one another in good and bad ways, especially when straight razors and guns are involved.
Writer-director Demy, who transformed the movie musical in the 1960s with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort (the latter also featuring Darrieux), includes no Hollywood-like set pieces in Une Chambre en Ville, no dancing, no choruses — essentially, no real songs at all. Instead, all of the dialogue is sung by the actors (or dubbed in by someone else) as if in regular conversation. Inspired by a real shipyard strike in his hometown of Nantes in 1955, Demy takes on such concepts as wealth, class, authority, home, family, and, most of all, love — both real and imagined, unrequited and lustful — in the vastly underrated film, which is quite entertaining and very funny despite its dark themes. And be on the lookout for more echoes of Les Misérables throughout. A new digital restoration of Une Chambre en Ville is screening February 11 at 4:00 & 7:30 as part of the FIAF CinéSalon series “Remastered & Restored: Treasures of French Cinema”; the later screening will be presented by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, and both shows will be followed by a wine reception. The three-month festival continues with such other recently restored French classics as Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (introduced by Lola Montes Schnabel), Claude Chabrol’s The Color of Lies (costar Jacques Gamblin will no longer introduce the film), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan.