93 minutes

     There is always one problem in returning to a childhood haunt when you're older: your adult eyes may not look at things the same way. That is probably the least of the issues that make Une Chambre en ville such a fascinating, moving wreck of a film - by definition, there can only be one Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and even if you were to try it a second time the stars might not align properly. They didn't for Jacques Demy's second go-around at a "popular opera" with entirely sung dialogue, this time a darker and even more stylized tale about the chance meeting between a metalworker (Richard Berry) and an unhappy bourgeois housewife (Dominique Sanda) in 1955 Nantes, against a background of labour struggles.

     This 1982 attempt at recapturing the magic of Mr. Demy's 1964 masterpiece was in fact a project the director had nurtured since the late 1960s and actually came close to shooting in the mid-1970s with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in the leads (Gaumont pulled the plug on the project after a run of failures, and Ms. Deneuve balked at the director's insistance of having a professional singer sing for her). Though passionately supported by the French critics at the time, Une Chambre en ville was a box-office failure and, in hindsight, it remains one of those "cursed" films whose fate seemed pre-ordained by the struggles they faced in getting to the screen. The deliberate, stylized artificialism of the musical form was out of touch with the more naturalistic landscape of French film drama in the 1970s and 1980s, and required versatile actors who could make it work within the heightened emotions demanded by Mr. Demy's operatic class tragedy. Neither Ms. Sanda nor Mr. Berry, fine actors though they are, are at ease with the demands of the material, too serious and surly to match the need for fantasy and lightness that fully sung dialogue requires, even if the voices on-screen aren't theirs. See, for instance, what Michel Piccoli does with his small supporting role as Ms. Sanda's husband, fully inhabiting the role and making it work within the film even dubbed by a singer.

     When putting Une Chambre en ville in its context, there is indeed a whiff of mothballs around such a deliberate throwback to the musical and to a specific form of musical that never really took much hold. But there is also an admirable stubbornness in Mr. Demy's sticking to his guns through thick and thin and against all odds, and the fact that Une Chambre en ville actually retains the interest and the emotion of the viewer unflaggingly despite all the obvious issues only underlines Mr. Demy's absolutely superb handling of the project's variables and his unique sense of staging. That only makes it more sad that he had to work with Michel Colombier's fussy, over-arranged, over-egged score, much less memorable than Michel Legrand would have made it (for the record, Mr. Demy originally offered the film to Mr. Legrand, who passed on it, unconvinced by the script). The result turns out to be a strangely memorable film, a car crash you can't avert your eyes from, a fusty heirloom you really don't want to let go of.

Starring Dominique Sanda, Danielle Darrieux, Richard Berry, Michel Piccoli; with Fabienne Guyon, Anna Gaylor, Jean-François Stévenin, Jean-Louis Rolland, Marie-France Roussel, Georges Blaness, Mapie Folliard, Monique Creteur, Gil Warga, Nicolas Hossein, Yann Dedet, Antoine Mikola, Patrick Joly.
     Directed and written by Jacques Demy; music by Michel Colombier; director of photography (colour by GTC), Jean Penzer; production designer, Bernard Evein; costume designer, Rosalie Varda; film editor, Sabine Mamou.
     A Christine Gouze-Renal presentation of a Progefi/TF1 Films Production/UGC/Top 1 co-production. (Original French distributor, Europe 1-UGC Distribution. World sales, Ciné-Tamaris.)
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 17th 2011. 


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