When I was in Paris this past summer–yes, Ducks, again–as I was checking in to my unairconditioned hotel in the Marais, I saw a poster for a Jacques Demy retrospective at the Cinemathèque Française. So I went; it was quite nice, although I remember thinking, he made so many movies, and I’ve only seen one.
Wouldn’t you know it, the Film Forum solved that problem for me with their Jacques Demy film festival, just wrapping up now with a one week showing of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Demy’s masterpiece. But I also got to see most of his other movies (of the ones I missed, I really regret only Baie des Anges) and I’m here to report on something that struck me about his films–their subversive, surprising feminism.
Or perhaps not so surprising. Demy trafficked in using tropes in unconventional ways, after all. What makes Cherbourg work so well isn’t the luscious musical score–it’s that underneath all that Michel Legrand sumptuousness, there’s a completely unsentimental love story playing out. Recast it with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, mix in a few jump cuts, and you’d have something that looks close to a Jean-Paul Godard film.
One thing strikes you immediately if you manage to see so many Demy films in a row–the presence of single mothers. Widows, teens separated by war, or just flings in the past, Demy’s films abound with vibrant mothers who have not let their motherhood stop them from still striving towards the life they want–except, perhaps, Genviève in Cherbourg, his most fully realized tragedy.
At the center of the Demy mythos, the key to almost all his work, is Lola (1961), his first film, in many ways his most honest and complete work. In this film we find so many of his characteristic themes: the single mother; the doubling of characters and circumstances; and most importantly, I think, his technique of approaching his heroine obliquely, through the anomie of a young man.
Because while Demy keeps his focus on Marc Michel’s aimless Roland Cassard, robbed of innocence by the war and purpose by modern-day existence, who is the hero(ine) of Lola if not Lola herself? The movie is the story not only of her fierce resolve to stay independent while still enjoying affection and love (seen both in the American sailor Frankie’s attempts to wring a declaration of love out of her and Cassard’s glowering torch-bearing), but of all the characters she is the only one with a happy ending: reunited with her husband Michel, returned rich from overseas after abandoning her and her son seven years prior.
Lola is truly the map to Demy’s art–the wandering through the closed-in streets of Nantes (especially the shopping gallery, a location he will return to at least twice more), and the widow-daughter, mother-young child doubling that we see again in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort (although here the widow has a young child herself) and Un Chambre en Ville. All of these women are fierce survivors, willing to fight life on its own terms and make the best way they can despite their setbacks; but none match Lola’s dauntless quest for love (and sex) in a world of men who seek only to possess her.
Backwards to the past
I’m going to do things slightly backwards. I’m going to address the later films first. I think they show off his themes in a simpler way, although still beset with complication. None of them match the heights of Lola or Cherbourg, but all fail in interesting ways.
If you had to build a case for Demy as a New Wave director (I’d say it’s not completely clear where he fits in with that movement), your best case would be made by Lola and his only American movie, Model Shop. In many ways, Model Shop is an American Lola; it even has Lola herself, divorced from Michel, separated from her son in Paris, and working at a “model shop”, a storefront where men can make shoot their own pornographic photos. Gary Lockwood’s George substitutes for Marc Michel’s Roland; like his predecessor, he’s given up his art (architecture) and wanders around, bumming money from his friends, and trying to remain interested in his live-in girlfriend.
Model Shop is a much darker film. Where Lola looked to the romance of overseas travel, flight into the bold American century (the opening scenes feature Lola’s returning husband Michel’s enormous white Mercury driving along the Nantes waterfront), in Model Shop we feel an alien’s aloneness in the vastness of the California cityscape. The best parts of the film are George’s wanderings down Los Angeles’ straight boulevards, with their anonymous storefronts and the general air of mid-60s dilapidation. This tawdriness has descended on Lola herself; she is no longer a performer, someone who has a craft and art to pursue, but simply a mannequin onto which men project their longings and loss. And hovering over George is his discovery that he is to report for the draft and service in Vietnam.
What sabotages Model Shop ultimately is the performances–the studio forced Gary Lockwood on Demy; he had wanted to cast an unknown actor named Harrison Ford, and Alexandra Hay gives a very strained performance as George’s girlfriend Gloria. The film really comes alive only when Anouk Aimée is onscreen. The other weakness is the sudden declaration of true love George makes to Lola. To her (and Demy’s) credit, she disregards it–”you just wanted to say that to someone” she tells him. As in the earlier film, Lola is really the hero of the movie; George’s problems never seem to really connect with him or the audience, and his declaration at the end of the film that “you have to keep trying” comes nowhere near Marc Michel’s angry glower as he stomps down the road, watching Lola and her husband drive away, heading towards the ship that will take him to South Africa and adventure.
Still, Model Shop has an edgy, nervous energy; it feels as used up as Lola herself, but still pushes forward, struggling to find a way out. It’s a fascinating heartbreaker of a movie, almost as much as his last great epic, Un Chambre en Ville.
Next time: fairy tales, and the absolutely stupid last five minutes of Un Chambre en Ville. Allons-y, mes canards!