Academic journal article Post Script

Cubism and the Carnivalesque in Jacques Demy's Demoiselles De Rochefort

Academic journal article Post Script

Cubism and the Carnivalesque in Jacques Demy's Demoiselles De Rochefort

Article excerpt

What we are calling a hybrid construction is an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (syntactical) and compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, 'two languages,' two semantic and axiological belief systems. We repeat there is no formal--compositional and syntactic--boundary between these utterances, styles, languages, belief systems.

(Bakhtin "Discourse in the Novel" 304-305)


The very first sequence of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)--which opens with a classic establishing shot of the Rochefort transporter bridge--announces and sets into motion Jacques Demy's distinctly postmodern approach to art and representation. The image of the travelling bridge signifies not only a space between, but also a movement through that space; it is here a literal embodiment of "hybrid construction" in the Bakhtinian sense. Les Demoiselles, a Hollywood-inspired but also locally grounded and profoundly French musical comedy, can itself be seen as fundamentally hybridic or carnivalesque in that it, too, "bridges" low and high art, classical and experimental aesthetic conventions, and an appreciation for local and global influences. This essay thus proposes a Bakhtinian reading of Demy's film as a highly sophisticated, though no less entertaining, commentary on the dynamic, interactive, and generative nature of artistic representation.

It is arguably the hybridic quality of Demy's films, particularly his musicals, that has disadvantaged his work with critics and scholars over the years. As Robert Stam points out in Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film, failing to recognize the carnivalesque tradition can lead (and indeed, has led) to misreadings in cinema studies: "A number of filmmakers [...] have been misunderstood or mis-appreciated because their work has been judged by the canons of 'good taste' or 'political correctness' rather than as prolongations of a perennial carnivalesque tradition" (115). Defying easy categorization within cinema studies, Demy's films have, until fairly recently, been relatively ignored or dismissed as less serious and out of sync with the grittier, more realist-seeming New-Wave works of filmmakers such as Godard, Resnais, or Truffaut. (1) Recent scholarship has begun to redress this bias against Demy's work precisely by focusing, in one way or another, on what Amy Herzog has referred to as the "strange middle ground" Demy occupies as a filmmaker, on the various ways his films seem to occupy two, sometimes multiple, and often incongruous spaces or planes. Recent research reveals a new appreciation of the way his work bridges aesthetic (Hill 2008 a, b), generic (Herzog 2009, Henneton 2012), political (Virtue 2013), and sex/gender (Duggan 2013) categories. In addition to shedding new light on Demy's significant contribution to world cinema, this research makes the case that, far from being out of touch or irrelevant, his work reveals profound engagement with the preoccupations of its time.

The concept of hybridity is often understood in historical terms as postmodernism's response to the modernist understanding of culture and identity as static, restricted entities. Indeed, the title of Demy's film is a direct play on the title of Pablo Picasso's painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). By explicitly referencing Picasso's iconic and iconoclastic modernist masterpiece, Demy, too, seems to position himself in relation to modernism, but in a self-consciously ambivalent and "dialogic" way, one of "gay relativity," to use Bakhtin's term (Rabelais and His World 11). Picasso's painting, which has been credited with inventing Cubism, was seen as groundbreaking because it departed radically from traditional European art, "staring down," as Leo Steinberg put it, the "three founding rules of Western art [...] idealization, emotional distance, and fixed-focus perspective--the tradition of high-craft illusionism which conducts the spectator-voyeur unobserved to his privileged seat" (173). …

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