Jacques Demy's films always had a depressive, melancholy streak underneath their colorful exteriors. His startling 1982 musical Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town) takes it to new heights (or lows). All but ignored in the U.S. until it was championed by critics such as Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum, it's simultaneously one of his campiest and most tragic films.
Against the backdrop of a massive strike in '50s Nantes, steelworker Francois (Richard Berry), who rooms with baroness landlord Margot (Danielle Darrieux), falls for Edith (Dominique Sanda), a semi-prostitute who walks around naked underneath a fur coat. To say that misfortune awaits them is a grievous understatement. With the casting of Darrieux and Sanda as links to Demy's idols Max Ophuls and Robert Bresson, the film breaks with the relatively sunny surfaces of Demy films like Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which followed Hollywood models more than they subverted them; its opening shows strikers and riot police breaking into song as they prepare to face off.
Yet rather than staging isolated production numbers, Demy incorporates music throughout. As in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, every line of dialogue is sung (though opinions will vary how well Michel Colombier's odd disco/funk-inflected score here has aged compared to Michel Legrand's). If this suggests the recent movie version of Les Miserables, you're not far off; it's such a visible influence on Les Miz director Tom Hooper that it makes you wish Demy had adapted Victor Hugo's novel.
But Demy's is a far more accomplished film. The colorful cinematography and production design (a strength of even his weakest work) heighten rather than detract from the narrative's downbeat nature: In its delirious resolution, it achieves the operatic (even hysteric) passion that Hooper lunged for but never reached. Une Chambre en Ville isn't a simple nostalgic rerun of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's format or Demy's childhood memories of Nantes; it takes them in a very different, much harsher and more astringent direction.