Doomed L’Amour de la Mer

By Robert Chilcott

lola-jacques-demy.jpgLola, 1961

In the universe of Jacques Demy, people arrive and people leave. Sailors turn up at towns such as Nantes, Cherbourg and Rochefort in search of passion – a transient happiness however, as their vocation never allows them to stay. Dancers and musicians stick around, frustrated, yearning for Paris.

A stetson in a convertible arrives at break of day. In Lola (1961) Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) is bored of the provinces, and as such can never get anywhere on time. His talent for music disappeared with his first love and his military service, he gets fired for being late five times in three days, and realises the result of his daydreaming is being broke. He doesn’t want to return to this miserable port, but he’s having problems escaping. His only means of travel and freedom is to accept a job as a diamond smuggler.

Cecile (Anouk Aimée), meanwhile, is hanging around, waiting in vain for her true love Michel, who disappeared 8 years ago after leaving her pregnant. Unlike Roland, she’s no moaning Minnie - cheerful, always on the move, never stopping. Working as a dancer she picks up sailors who remind her of him, knowing that they’ll leave in a few days and that there’s no time to get hurt.

Roland’s boss tells him that his head’s in the clouds and quoting passages from novels is unhealthy. After getting the sack Roland goes to the movies to see a Gary Cooper film - “Life is always nice in films, people seem happy” he tells his landlady – and then bumps into his childhood sweetheart, Cecile. Elsewhere, another (teenage) Cecile dreams of dancing and falling in love. The mistakes of romance are repeated from generation to generation, however to want happiness is, in itself, a little bit of happiness.

lola-jacques-demy-2.jpgLola, 1961

Demy revels in both the beauty and the ironic contrivance of chance. Lola’s suitors pass each other in the street without knowing they are linked by the same woman. Frankie the sailor, on his last day of leave, is turned away by the adult Cecile and ends up taking the teenage Cecile to the funfair, thus capturing her heart. Michel returns, having made his fortune in Gary Coopers paradise. Roland’s smuggling contacts are raided by the cops, but he leaves anyway. Teenage Cecile runs away to Cherbourg to live with her uncle, who’s really her father. Adult Cecile is driven off by Michel, though she looks back at Roland, who walks away in the opposite direction. The ideal of first love is one that all the characters cling onto, however unhappy it may make them feel. “You only love once, and it’s already happened for me”.

For his debut, Demy had been introduced by Godard to producer Georges De Beauregard, who had taken a risk, and made a mint, with the latter’s A Bout de Souffle. After presenting him with an elaborate script, De Beauregard gave Demy a miniscule budget, meaning the songs and dances were out, affording only a 5 week shoot without sets, costumes, lights or even a sound-recordist. Rightly regarded as a Nouvelle Vague classic, Lola remains, for many, Demy’s finest film, the tone, characters and settings often recurring throughout his 60s period, and beginning a lifelong collaboration with composer Michel Legrand.

After the international success of his 3rd feature, the Palme D’or winner Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (1964), Hollywood came calling, Demy moved to the West Coast and rented a convertible. Developing a script with a then unknown Harrison Ford earmarked for the lead, the studios, believing Ford to have no future, imposed Gary Lockwood, then fresh from Kubricks 2001, on the project instead. Conceived as a sequel to Lola, the dream of Americana has turned sour. In Model Shop (1968) George wakes up on what will become his last 24 hours of freedom. He needs $100 for an overdue payment on his car. His wannabe actress girlfriend suggests they go their separate ways, but he doesn’t answer, leaving her to go off and audition for a soap commercial (“bubbles, not foam”). In pursuit of some cash to borrow, George is easily distracted by the sight of Lola/Cecile, a (fallen) angel in white. Stopping off at his friend’s house, Jay Fergusun from the psyche pop group Spirit, he hangs out for a coffee whilst Fergusun plays him a song to which he hasn’t got the words done yet. Like an American cousin of Roland, George reveals that he’s let his passion for architecture slide, as he doesn’t want to design service stations but instead wants to create something baroque. As Spirit have a record deal with Lou Adler (playing a cameo as a character called Grossman) and are cutting their second album, money means nothing to Ferguson and he loans George the money without any deadline of when he’s to pay it back.

lola-jacques-demy-3.jpgLola, 1961

Driving around, LA is vast yet quiet, tranquil, slow. There’s no aggression, at least not on the surface. Only back at George’s apartment do we hear the deafening noise of aeroplanes coming and going. There are constant references on the radio to the Paris peace talks, and that the end of the war in Vietnam is in sight. Despite his dejected appearance, there’s a quiet desperation within George to find something, even though he doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for or how to articulate it. Spotting Lola again, hair stacked high and fly sunglasses, an alien specimen, he tracks her to a downtown peepshow. Clumsily photographing her as she poses for her mechanical glamour shots, it’s not her images he wants, but what’s inside. No longer the idealist of old, Lola’s now a cold and lonely soul, a kindred spirit for George to transfer all his desire onto. George dips into his $100 to pay for the prints. Rita, the receptionist, sits watching TV. The model shop is sad and mundane, rather than sleazy, its colours recalling the umbrella shops and apartments of Cherbourg.

George calls by to see his friends who run an underground paper (“a circulation of 40,000”, he is told). They’re organising a love-in, and offer him a job. On the wall, a photo of Belmondo is pinned next to one of Phil Spector with a wad of dollars in his mouth, a juxtaposition that reinforces the impossibility of the Nouvelle Vague dream and its inevitable demise. A futile phone call to his parents to borrow more money notifies him that his draft papers have arrived and he has to report an office in San Francisco. Visiting the peep show for a second time, he convinces Lola to spend the night with him. They both want simple, happy lives, yet its eluding them both. George tells her he needs to say “I love you” to someone. He needs love like a child, yet he’s also afraid of it. Having seen too many French films, he knows that their romance will be a short one. Happiness goes hand in hand with cynicism. They’re both too aware that love rarely lasts, even before any consummation has taken place. The past is always there – Lola produces a photo album with memories of the earlier film, and tells George that the love of her life has run off with Jeanne Moreau’s gambler from Bay of Angels (1963). ‘Le Monde’ magazine sits on the table with Catherine Deneuve as its cover star. Unlike the sweethearts in Les Parapluies separated by war, George offers to desert and run off with Lola, stating that love is a good cause. He gives her his remaining $75 towards her ticket home. The following morning his girlfriend walks out on him and his car is taken by the repo man. Clinging onto his newfound hope, he phones Lola, but she’s gone too. In Bay of Angels, they took a gamble on love. In Cherbourg, they settled for second best. In Rochefort everyone ended up with the right person at the eleventh hour. Demy’s now come full circle, and like Roland Cassard, George ends up travelling alone. The film finishes abruptly, with George breaking down on the phone to Lola’s flatmate. It is tragic but hopeful, as he reassures himself that he’s “got to keep trying”. Although The Mamas and Papas had got everyone dreaming of California, their words of love were undermined by separation, uncertainty, and the threat of a violent demise. Jim Morrison’s End was only a moment away.

model-shop-jacques-demy.jpgModel Shop, 1967

Demy shoots LA like a documentary of his time there. Despite jukeboxes and hamburgers, pool tables and coffee & cigarettes, the coca cola bottle is nevertheless empty - its not lived up to his dreams and, like his characters, he will have to leave. The car, symbol of freedom and the open road, is on borrowed time. Nostalgia is killing everyone. Disappointment fills every frame. Model Shop did not do well at the box office or with the critics, who renamed it Model Flop. Its existential protagonist lost in a changing landscape was perhaps a few years ahead of its time, though it anticipates the ennui of the 70s movie brat anti-heroes, and even Easy Rider only a year later. The New Wave dream of making Spartacus in Hollywood for 10 million dollars would never happen. Like his peers, Demy’s European sensibility would always prevent him from making the technicolour studio musicals he so admired. Godard had veered to the extreme, and Truffaut to the centre. Demy returned to France the following year, never to make a film in the US again. Re-teaming with his princess Deneuve and Cocteau’s matinee idol Jean Marais as the king, he made a fairy tale, Donkey Skin, the most financially successful of all his films. Though his subsequent output was sporadic and uneven, certain films, such as Model Shop, The Pied Piper (1972) and A Room in a Town (1982) have become ripe for critical re-evaluation.

The Jacques Demy retrospective is presented by Ciné Lumière and BFI Southbank in collaboration with the Ministère des affaires étrangéres, Paris, with the support of Ciné-Tamaris.

Robert Chilcott is a writer and filmmaker. He lives in London.