Une chambre en ville

France 1982, 93 mins
Director: Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy’s new film, Une chambre en ville, is one of his oldest projects. In 1953-54, just out of film school, he began to write a novel set in his home town of Nantes, a tragic love story against a background of violent conflict in the shipyards of a kind which has been frequent in the town. ‘I had done seven or eight chapters, and then I dropped it because I realised it wasn’t a novel at all and that it would be better to make it into a film. I couldn’t find the right ending; I couldn’t work it out. Perhaps it was too close to me because in many ways it was my father’s life, or attached to memories of things he had told me.’ In 1964, after the success of Lola and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, he mentioned his ‘premier vrai scenario’ in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma. By that time, however, he was talking about ‘doing an opera, an opera for an opera house’, and the action had moved from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire.

Ten years later, Demy came back to the subject to give it its final form: a musical tragedy in which all dialogue would be sung, as with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. His old collaborator, Michel Legrand, did not like the script, and Demy turned to another composer, Michel Colombier, with whom he worked for a year on the project. In a 1976 interview Demy said: ‘The music is pop and lyrical, very beautiful. The film opens during a strike, with a cordon of police in the Place de la Prefecture and the workers in the Rue du Roi Albert, all singing in chorus. Really very lyrical … Gerard Depardieu was to play Guilbaud, a workman who rents a room from an elderly Countess, a colonel’s widow. Catherine Deneuve was Edith, the Countess’ daughter, who is married to a bourgeois and prostitutes herself in the evenings, naked under her mink coat. She meets Guilbaud by chance and they fall madly in love; a total, guilty passion which leads to their deaths. Simone Signoret was to play the Countess, and Isabelle Huppert Guilbaud’s fiancée.’

In spite of this casting, it had proved as difficult to find a producer as it had been with Parapluies ten years earlier. But Demy proceeded, thanks to a 50,000 franc ‘avance sur recettes’ grant, and in 1976 Gaumont and Planfilm finally agreed to produce the picture. Backing and distribution were assured, recordings started, and a shooting schedule was agreed. It had to be called off when Catherine Deneuve, whose singing voice had been dubbed in Parapluies, as with all the other actors, refused to be dubbed on this occasion, arguing that her voice was an integral part of her artistic identity. Depardieu followed suit. The musical score was a very difficult one, the tests did not satisfy a demanding director, and both players eventually withdrew. Although efforts were made to go ahead, with Dominique Sanda replacing Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux taking the Signoret role, the impetus had been lost.

For the next two years, Demy struggled to set up an enormous Franco-Soviet co-production, a musical comedy called Anouchka. It failed because he was unable to find a producer willing to risk the modest French participation. Another plan, for a musical with Yves Montand and Isabelle Adjani, also fell through. During this time he did direct two commissioned works: Lady Oscar (1979), a big historical picture made in France but filmed in English for a Japanese producer, and La Naissance du jour (1981), a sensitive adaptation of Colette’s novel for French television.

Then, quite unexpectedly, at the end of 1981 Demy finally got his chance. At the insistence of Dominique Sanda, whom he had just directed in La Naissance du jour, he was asked by the producer Christine Gouze-Renal to make a television film. Demy suggested instead that she should produce Une Chambre en ville, and six years after its collapse the production was on again. Because of financial constraints, Demy had to agree to shoot all the interiors in a studio, something he had not done in France since making Le bel indifférent in 1957.

Back in the spring, I visited the set at the Billancourt studios. In a small corner of an immense stage, Bernard Evein, who has worked with Demy ever since they were at art school together in Nantes, had constructed the intricate set of a six-room apartment. Even when Demy works in a studio, he likes to find the familiar logic of places which really exist, and the set is so organised that the camera will be able to move easily from one room to another or glimpse what is happening through a half-open door at the end of a corridor. In Edith’s bedroom, which is littered with sports magazines and bicycle wheels, there is an 18th century bust on the mantelpiece, Evein’s familiar signature for any bourgeois interior he designs for Demy. This time it is irreverently topped with a cyclist’s cap.

The film’s soundtrack had been recorded six weeks before shooting started, and for some weeks the actors have been listening to a cassette recording to familiarise themselves with rhythms and inflections they will have to respect scrupulously during the takes. The first scene is to be shot in the Countess’ salon, a large, entirely red room, arid brings together Darrieux and Richard Berry, a promising newcomer to French cinema, playing her lodger. Darrieux sings herself (as she did in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort), but it is the first day of filming and you can feel how tense she is at having to subordinate her acting to a tyrannical voice which will suffer no vagaries. After a few rehearsals the process becomes natural, and in the days that follow I see the actors forgetting after a few minutes that no one is recording the sounds they are producing, and playing as though the voices coming from the huge loudspeaker on the set were their own.

Demy is insistent that his camera’s lens should never be in a position that would be physically impossible for a human observer. He is also concerned, as in all his films, with precise indications of time (the whole action takes place in 48 hours). As the crew moves from one room to another, the props man rushes ahead to set a drawing room or kitchen clock at the right time. It’s also evident, from the first scene, that Demy will be showing his actors’ reflections in mirrors whenever the sets and the action allow it.

Demy is quite happy to be shooting in a studio, with sets that can be planned in terms of camera angles and walls that can be moved at will, particularly since the film involves a limited number of places, with Darrieux’s apartment and Michel Piccoli’s television shop taking up more than half the shooting schedule. At the same time, he pays special attention to all the props which link the film with Nantes. Later in the schedule, the production moves to Nantes for location shooting – not in the 18th century part of the town where Lola was shot but in the 17th century quarter, where the buildings are more austere and more in keeping with this film’s sombre tone. Michel Piccoli’s shop, however, is in the Passage Pommeraye, where Roland Cassard met Lola more than 20 years ago.

There will also be three days in the Place de la Préfecture, filming fighting between police and strikers. About 800 extras are recruited locally for these scenes (many of them unemployed, since the region has been badly hit by the economic crisis), and local choirs have been enlisted to give conviction to the workers’ song of hope and confidence amid the tear gas and the burning cars. Two decades after Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy is facing the biggest challenge of a career which has never been characterised by caution.
Jean-Pierre Berthome, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1982

Directed by: Jacques Demy
©: Progéfi, TF1 Films Production, U.G.C., Top 1
Co-production: Progéfi, TF1 Films, UGC, Top 1
Presented by: Christine Gouze-Rénal
Producer: Christine Gouze-Rénal
Unit Production Manager: Bernard Vaillant
Production Manager: Philippe Verro
Administration: Nelly Niay
Production Assistant: Jérôme Chalou
Trainee: Mathieu Mitsinkides
1st Assistant Director: Denis Epstein
2nd Assistant Director: Patrice Martineau
Script Supervisor: Annie Maurel
Scenario: Jacques Demy
Director of Photography: Jean Penzer
Camera Operator: François Lartigue
1st Assistant Camera: Michel Coteret
2nd Assistant Camera: Eric Vallée
Camera Assistant: Michel Coteret
Gaffer: André Nové
Key Grip: Gilbert Darraux
Stills Photography: Moune Jamet
Editor: Sabine Mamou
Assistant Editor: Nelly Meunier
Trainee Editor: Patricia Mazuy
Art Director: Bernard Evein
1st Assistant Art Director [Paris]: Georges Glon
2nd Assistant Art Director [Nantes]: André Guérin
Trainee Art Director: Florence Lhebrard
Set Decorator: Gabriel Béchir
Set Dresser: Bernard Geanty
Prop Buyer: Gérard James
Property Master: Alain Laude
Furniture Property Master: Raymond Lemoigne
Upholstery: Roger Fresca
Costumes: Rosalie Varda
Costumers: Christiane Fageol, Bernard Minne
Miss Dominique Sanda’s Fur Coat by: Claude Gilbert
Make-up: Ronaldo Ribeiro de Abreu
Hair: Patrick Archambault
Music: Michel Colombier
Lyrics: Jacques Demy
Orchestra and Choirs Directed by: Michel Colombier
Music Producer: Jacques Revaux
Sound Supervisor: André Hervé
Sound Recording: Bruno Lambert, Eric Tomlinson, Jean-Michel Porterie
Sound Mixing/Effects: Jonathan Liebling, Bernard Leroux, Gérard Lamps
Stunt Co-ordinator: Mario Luraschi
This film was made at: Studios de Billancourt

Dominique Sanda (Edith Leroyer)
Danielle Darrieux (Margot Langlois)
Richard Berry (François Guilbaud)
Michel Piccoli (Edmond Leroyer)
Fabienne Guyon (Violette Pelletier)
Anna Gaylor (Madame Pelletier)
Jean-François Stévenin (Dambiel)
Jean-Louis Rolland (domestic)
Marie-France Roussel (Madame Sforza)
Georges Blaness (CRS chief)
Mapie Folliard (woman with child)
Monique Creteur (woman with cat)
Gil Warga (worker 1)
Nicolas Hossein (worker 2)
Yann Dedet (worker 3)
Antoine Mikola (worker 4)
Patrick Joly (waterer)

with the voices of
Danielle Darrieux (Margot Langlois)
Florence Davis (Edith)
Liliane Davis (Madame Pelletier)
Fabienne Guyon (Violette)
Marie-France Roussel (Madame Sforza)
Jacques Revaux (François)
Jean-Louis Rolland (domestic)
Georges Blaness (Edmond)
Aldo Franck (Dambiel)

France 1982©
93 mins

La Mort en ce jardin (Evil Eden)
Thu 1 Jun 20:35; Tue 6 Jun 18:15
Le Mépris (Contempt)
From Fri 2 Jun
The Diary of a Chambermaid (Le journal d’une femme de chambre)
Fri 2 Jun 18:15; Fri 16 Jun 20:55
Belle de jour
Fri 2 Jun 20:40; Sun 25 Jun 18:45
Les Choses de la vie (The Things of Life)
Sat 3 Jun 12:30; Tue 13 Jun 20:45
Sat 3 Jun 15:00; Wed 14 Jun 18:15
La Grande Bouffe (Blow-Out)
Sat 3 Jun 20:30; Mon 12 Jun 18:10
Ten Days’ Wonder (La Décade prodigeuse)
Sun 4 Jun 15:20; Sat 17 Jun 20:40
Vincent, François, Paul et les autres
Sun 4 Jun 18:00; Sun 18 Jun 13:10
Beyond Good and Evil: The Discreet Charm of Michel Piccoli
Mon 5 Jun 18:15
Tue 6 Jun 21:00; Fri 16 Jun 18:20
Spoiled Children (Des enfants gatés)
Wed 7 Jun 18:10; Mon 12 Jun 20:40
Une chambre en ville (A Room in Town)
Wed 14 Jun 20:45; Sat 24 Jun 13:00
Mauvais sang (The Night Is Young)
Sat 17 Jun 15:15; Thu 22 Jun 20:40
Milou en mai (Milou in May)
Sun 18 Jun 16:00; Mon 26 Jun 20:40
Belle toujours
Wed 21 Jun 20:50; Sun 25 Jun 16:30
La Belle Noiseuse
Sat 24 Jun 15:20; Wed 28 Jun 18:10
Habemus Papam – We Have a Pope
Sun 25 Jun 14:00; Thu 29 Jun 20:45

Promotional partner

Never miss an issue with Sight and Sound, the BFI’s internationally renowned film magazine. Subscribe from just £25*
*Price based on a 6-month print subscription (UK only). More info: sightandsoundsubs.bfi.org.uk

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup

Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email