The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

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To view Une Chambre en Ville click here.

Jacques Demy’s reputation has long suffered from an inferiority complex among the French New Wave filmmakers. Fans and critics find movies like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) challenging and daring while movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) are beloved all time classics, certainly adored but not considered the kind of serious art that the others were doing. If you’ve read my pieces on Demy before, you already know I think this is rubbish. But as Demy’s career grew, it expanded outwards and allowed for far more risk-taking and innovation than his earlier work. By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville, he was making movies that were as innovative and daring as anything coming out of the early days of the New Wave. Une Chambre en Ville, not nearly as famous as many of Demy’s earlier works, is riskier and more challenging than almost anything he ever did.

I’d like to start by making clear that Une Chambre en Ville is not a musical or an opera, but rather, something in between. It does not contain individual numbers so much as it simply sets the dialogue to music. There are no lines in the movie that are spoken rather than sung. And there are no songs either. There is music, relentless and omnipresent except for one brief moment, just before the final shot, where its absence says more than its presence ever could.  And so the subject matter is not uplifted by song but simply communicated by it.

The story takes place in 1955 in the city of Nantes, France. The opening credits give the viewers a sunrise to behold while a lovely version of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” plays over it. Demy is giving us the city from afar, a look from the outside. A receding vision where everything is beautiful, placid and ordered. The sun, however, isn’t real. It’s a painted circle, shifting from yellow to red as the credits wind down. Then, at their end, the color fades to black and white and we find ourselves on the streets below as workers on strike clash with police. They call the police “swine” and the police tell them to go home while from a window in an apartment above, Madame Langlois (Danielle Darrieux) looks down, shaking her head at the violence that erupts. She rents a room to one of the strikers, François (Richard Berry), and though she mocks him and his Marxist views openly, she also denounces the very bourgeois of which she is a part. François, it would seem, is her way of accepting the other side’s humanity. 

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François is seeing a girl, Violette (Fabienne Guyon), but when he meets a prostitute on the street, Edith (Dominique Sanda) who happens to be the daughter of Madame Langlois, they sleep together and fall in love. When Violette tells him she’s pregnant, he doesn’t care. He wants to be with Edith. To add one more layer of complication to the mix, Edith is married and her husband is abusive and unpredictable. 

If all of this sounds like the setting of a major melodrama, that’s because it is. That it chooses an opera for the medium of its message is no mistake. From the coincidences to the tragic and violent outcomes, this is a story that if played straight with dialogue, probably wouldn’t have worked.

Jacques Demy worked with composer Michel Colombier to create the musical backdrop for his screenplay. While there are some lines with rhymes that seem suited to a song, for the most part, they are simply the lines that Demy wrote as if he were writing a spoken screenplay and Colombier’s job was to give the actors music by which to sing those lines. As a result, there are no numbers, no dancing, no choreographed set pieces outside of the two main strike scenes, and even those are choreographed only to the extent that any large scene featuring a number of extras in any movie is choreographed. Demy was going for something different than a musical but less formal than an opera. A way to speak the words musically, but without songs. The result is more of an insistent chant, the kind you might think of during a religious ceremony where the presiding minister chants the sacred text to the congregation. And that chant dissolves away into the background, until finally, we are not even thinking about anyone singing anything. All that remains is a cadence, a rhythm that drives the story forward.

For a director who built a reputation on some of the best musical numbers and songs ever done in the movies, Une Chambre en Ville was a risk. People going in expecting beautiful Michel Legrand melodies no doubt came out disappointed but hopefully surprised as well. Une Chambre en Ville is a movie that sticks with you and after it’s over, you can’t hum a single melody. But you can’t get its music out of your head. And the story, like a finely tuned violin, resonates long after the credits roll.

Greg Ferrara

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4 Responses The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)
Posted By Susan Doll : September 1, 2017 7:11 pm

I knew nothing about this film, but it sounds so unusual I will have to check it out. Of all the New Wave directors, I am the least familiar with Demy.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 1, 2017 9:13 pm

For the last year or so I’ve been driven to reacquaint myself with the directors of the New Wave outside of Godard simply because I overly focused on him for years. As a result, I’ve done several pieces on Chabrol, Demy, and Truffaut in the last three months. I still think Demy’s Lola which I wrote up here in the recent past is my favorite of his but Une Chambre en Ville is his most unique.

Posted By swac44 : September 3, 2017 7:56 am

I was hoping to go through my Demy Criterion box in chronological order after breaking the seal with Lola recently, but it was interesting to jump to the end and watch another story set in Nantes, on some of the same streets and locations.

Having just come out of a lengthy labour dispute myself, the scenes of Guilbaud and his fellow workers hit close to home (especially when layoffs were announced while they’re on strike, which also happened in our instance), while the romantic elements rang rather hollow for me. I can see what you mean when you say this story would probably not have worked if the lines weren’t sung. Some of the instrumental backing hasn’t aged well either, with a 1950s story scored to early ’80s lite jazz. Somehow The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort feel fresher now than this film, which is 20 years younger and more explicit.

But I’m still glad I saw it, Demy’s attention to detail and strong performances kept me watching, even if it didn’t have the emotional impact for me that the director intended.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 3, 2017 1:07 pm

Swac, glad you watched it. The early ’80s lite jazz is dated, yes. I can’t really disagree but I still feel it’s a unique experiment for Demy and stands as a kind of one-off movie that has few equivalents in the cinema.That doesn’t make it good or bad, just different. And like many period movies, you can always tell when it was made. No one actually looks like someone from the fifties. But I still enjoy it, and will continue my exploration of Demy and the rest of the New Wave.

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