Monday, June 30, 2008
In some ways the ideal person to view Jacques Demy’s 1969 film MODEL SHOP would be somebody who has already seen his first feature LOLA, loves it, then watches MODEL SHOP with no awareness whatsoever that the lead character from the earlier film is going to turn up once again. The first moment Lola appears in the Los Angeles set-film, a million miles away from the small town of Nantes where we last saw her, would be a wonderful surprise for someone who wasn’t expecting it. When Anouk Aimée makes that initial appearance in MODEL SHOP it’s hard not to think of seeing someone you loved long ago for the first time in years. It gives us a Lola who is older, much more world-weary yet still beautiful beyond words. The film never reaches the rapturous heights of LOLA but it is automatically special in that gives us another look at Aimée in the role, which makes it a little frustrating when we don’t get to spend more time with her. But in a way that frustration, that feeling of being so close to what you desire to you can almost touch it, is what the film is about. It’s what L.A. can be like as well. And, unfortunately, it’s the ultimate feeling one has after seeing the movie which makes it slightly frustrating.
I return to the films of Jacques Demy often, finding myself exhilarated by how the stories are told but also in its expressions of both the hope in searching for and the impossibility of romance. On the surface they can seem light but something in them speaks to the messiness of relationships, how you can’t ever assume you will end up with the one you want to. His earlier films were set in provincial towns in France. People meet and fall in love with each other on the streets, in shops, in cafes and those movies feel alive like few others do to me. At a certain point in the sixties Demy came to Hollywood to explore making films here. MODEL SHOP is the one film he ever made for a studio, Columbia to be precise, and it feels like a response to his own perceptions of Los Angeles. There’s very little walking, for one thing. There is, however, a lot of driving as a result and he seems to see this not as a bad thing but simply an alternative way to perceive your surroundings. I don’t love this film the way I do some of his others—there are enough things wrong with it which prevent it from reaching such heights—but it remains special to me because within his worldview of romance is a setting that I know better and feel like I can relate to more than his earlier works. The way this town sometimes works means that you can find yourself in the middle of the night having the most fascinating conversation with a beautiful girl who you’ve never met before. And you will possibly never see her again. It can be part of the trap of Los Angeles, in how it gives you a glimpse of everything you think you could possibly want but then just as quickly pulls it right back again. Somehow I suspect that Jacques Demy understood that.
Twenty-six year-old George Matthews (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s Gary Lockwood) lives in a tiny house at the edge of Venice with girlfriend Gloria (SKIDOO’S Alexandra Hay). Their aimless relationship is at its breaking point just as George is informed that he has one day to come up with the money to prevent his snazzy sports car from being repossessed. As he drives around town trying to raise money to deal with this Joe Gillis-like situation, he encounters a mysterious woman who he will eventually learn is referred to as Lola (Aimée). He follows her into a Model Shop, a tiny studio where customers can rent out girls to take pictures of them, where he learns she works. After paying for a session, George is soon informed about his draft notice, leading him to seek Lola out again, searching for some sort of connection as he tries to express his feelings to her.
MODEL SHOP is known by very few people today outside of fans of Jacques Demy and possibly the band Spirit who composed the music and makes a cameo as well (it’s a very good album). I first saw the film several years ago at the American Cinematheque following a screening of Michael Sarne’s JOANNA. The q&a for the first film ran long, causing the start for MODEL SHOP to be held up until close to midnight. It’s not really the sort of film to view that late at night and at a certain point the people I had come with bailed, deciding that they couldn’t take more of Gary Lockwood driving aimlessly around L.A. Make no mistake, a great deal of MODEL SHOP consists of him driving around. Driving, parking, stopping at traffic lights, turing, driving some more. Long chunks go by without much of anything happening. It never occurred to me to leave because of this. In fact, I kind of loved it. The second viewing was a few years later, again at the Egyptian, on a double bill with B.W.L. Norton’s CISCO PIKE, another film with a lead character wandering aimlessly around Los Angeles. And this past weekend I was driving across town myself to the Aero in Santa Monica to see MODEL SHOP once again, if for no other reason than to try to figure out why I was driving across town to see it again. Even on that first viewing I found the extended driving sequences somehow moving and to me they still are. There are few other films which pause to look around this city as much as this one does and at certain points it is genuinely striking to recognize certain sections of the city to see how much it has changed and what is still there (how long has that Midas on Sunset across from KTLA been around?). Though George lives in Venice, illogically most of what we see of him driving is in the Hollywood area. It doesn’t make much sense, but then again driving in L.A. never makes much sense anyway. Unlike Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT, which seems to use Los Angeles as a symbol for everything that is wrong with modern culture, it’s very clear that Demy is taking these pauses to notice everything he feels is beautiful about the place. He even has several characters mention how much they love the city in spite of what they say everyone else thinks, with George at one point saying how he considers it to be “pure poetry.” Made and released before the Tate-LaBianca murders, MODEL SHOP presents a city relaxed enough where George, driving around the Hollywood Hills, picks up a cute young hitchhiker who expresses her thanks by giving him a joint. The carefree atmosphere of the time dissipated long ago but every now and then the traffic breaks and you have one of those moments where that feeling is still there.
“You were dreaming,” Gloria tells George in the first line of the film, saying that she heard him mutter only the single word “love” while he was asleep. Only he doesn’t remember what the dream was. Right from the beginning he is made to be a kindred spirit to the male leads in various other Demy films. More specifically, in many ways George is simply another version of the character Roland Cassard, the male lead of LOLA who was memorably played by Marc Michel. Both men are introduced at a point where they are going nowhere in their lives. Roland is fired just at the beginning of LOLA and when we meet George is MODEL SHOP he has already left his job at an architectural firm (“Are you still at Hastings?” half the people he meets asks, all they seem to know about him). He still likes architecture, or at least he says so, he just has no interest in spending years working so he can design nothing but service stations and motels. George wants to create something more than that, he just has no idea what it might be. As it is, he seems to have very little ambition except for driving around L.A. Both Roland and George are looking for something to break up the monotony of their lives and the vision that is Lola turns up for them at just the right time.
MODEL SHOP was shown on a double bill at the Aero with Demy’s 1963 film BAY OF ANGELS, which stars Claude Mann as a young man who gets immersed into the world of gambling and in doing so becomes involved with a woman named Jackie Demaistre played by Jeanne Moreau. It seemed slightly unusual that these would be the two films paired together—after all, why not show MODEL SHOP with LOLA? But as it turned out they both have certain unexpected similarities in how they both portray aimless young men becoming involved with enigmatic, slightly older women who are first introduced dressed in white. Certain recurring beats and rhythms in the films become more noticeable than they would otherwise as well. And when late in MODEL SHOP, which was shown second, Lola speaks of how her husband ran off with a gambler named Jackie Demaistre, it provoked an unusual wave of laughter through the audience, just about the only audible response that occurred during the showing. It was as if the movie we had already seen was somehow suddenly intruding on the one we were now watching, surprisingly affecting the plots of both films as a result. Of course, this is not unusual in Demy’s universe. Roland Cassard, once again played by Marc Michel, shows up in a key role in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, at one point singing of a woman he once loved named Lola who “didn’t love me”. In MODEL SHOP Lola looks at a photo album and talks about some of the people in her life who we remember from the earlier film as well. We even spot some photos of Roland Cassard as she turns the pages but he frustratingly isn’t referred to.
This definitely lends an extra level to MODEL SHOP but it’s only going to be apparent to people familiar with the director’s other films. It really can only partly be considered a sequel to LOLA since to viewers walking in unaware Lola is going to seem as mysterious to them as she ultimately does to George. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that—it’s actually interesting that the film could play so different to two sets of people. But what unfortunately what makes MODEL SHOP so frustrating is in how some of these elements never really come together. Demy’s earlier films—LOLA, BAY OF ANGELS, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT—move like a rocket through their narratives as the camera seems to glide around effortlessly but MODEL SHOP instead lingers in an extremely slow fashion and winds up feeling somewhat stagnant in comparison. Along with the numerous driving scenes the sections that stick in the mind are mostly silent—being led down the corridor as Lockwood enters the Model Shop for the first time, the actor walking close behind Lola following her down the street, even when he glances around at his surroundings at a tiny burger joint at the corner of Fairfax and Santa Monica. Many of the dialogue scenes, the ones without Lola anyway, such as the arguments between George and Gloria or the numerous scenes of George talking with friends as he tries to borrow money wind up falling flat. Part of this could be an issue of it being directed by someone for whom English is not their first language and might be unable to deal with certain nuances in the performances. Gary Lockwood’s character is difficult to pin down because he’s never as likable as we want him to be. Continually as we’re about to be on his side he says something which makes him out to be a jerk—Roland Cassard in LOLA had issues in his own sadness but even when his actions were questionable it never causes us to wonder why we’re following this guy around. Maybe there is something about Michel which causes us to immediately identify with him and always understand his actions. Lockwood seems somewhat naturally cold as a personality, which may be why he was ideal in the role of Frank Poole, but doesn’t help when he needs to be relatable in at least some small way. George seems to step over the line a few times too many in things he says to Lola and it winds up making him seem like kind of a creep. Ultimately, it becomes a little hard to swallow that Lola would choose him, out of all the men she probably meets, to open up to. Alexandra Hay, a Goldie Hawn-type who passed away in 1993, seems unsure of herself at times, with occasional flashes of over-dramatic mannerisms. While seeing THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT the next night (on a double-bill with THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and that was a wonderful night as well) I was reminded of this at points during Francoise Dorleac’s performance except in that case it was played as someone who seemed to be appropriately behaving that way in the fantastical world of that musical. In MODEL SHOP, it seems like someone overdoing it and not knowing how to overdo it correctly because the direction is being mishandled.
This problem doesn’t arise with Anouk Aimée as Lola who is a true vision and it’s not at all hard to believe that George would become fascinated by her instantly. She doesn’t seem remotely like any other woman who would be encountered in all of Los Angeles. It’s particularly interesting to compare what she does here to her performance in the earlier film. We can see how the character has changed as well as how she remains the same—she seems quieter, sadder now—at one point in LOLA she says “Life’s great, isn’t it?” out of nowhere during a serious conversation and we believe that she believes it, but it’s impossible to imagine this older version of the character expressing such a thought. Still, a few comments she makes about how she has never gotten over someone in her life definitely recalls what she spoke of back in Nantes eight years earlier. After all, some people never really change. It’s one of the most successful examples I’ve ever seen of a years-after-the-fact follow-up performance. She rightly doesn’t play it as she did in 1961 and still manages to believably seem like the same person. Much of this is personal, yes, but I find some moments of her throughout extremely beautiful and sad at the same time. I wish I could have met Aimée as she appears in this film.
Almost more interesting is who didn’t wind up in the movie. Looking for an unknown for the role of George, Demy found a young actor he wished to cast by the name of Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, the studio reportedly decided that Harrison Ford had no future in show business and Gary Lockwood, then hot off 2001, got the lead role. It’s hard not to imagine what that film would have been like, although possibly some of the script and direction issues would have remained even with Ford playing the part. Or maybe the younger Ford, who always seems very boyish in tiny appearances from around this time, could have found a way to make the character more sympathetic. One familiar face who does turn up, surprisingly, is Fred Willard playing the role of a gas station attendant. He doesn’t really do anything and is only onscreen for a minute, but it’s impossible to miss him.
It’s difficult to talk about this movie because my response to it is so personal. There’s something about it which captures not only the aimless feeling of driving around Los Angeles but also what happens when you try to express yourself to such unattainable and, ultimately, unknowable women as Lola. The film displays that unfulfilling feeling of reaching, but missing, what you want in this town like few other films I can think of but unfortunately, the inert effect it gives off translates to the dramatic effect it has as well. “Always try” is what George seems to wind up with and that bit of optimism recalls Roland Cassard saying “There’s a bit of happiness in wanting happiness” at the end of LOLA. The problem is that the overall joyful effect LOLA gives off allows us to believe Cassard. Here, it feels like a death knell being stated by someone who is giving up. It’s hard to ignore the different feeling in Demy’s universe this time out, one that feels ultimately depressing. Maybe he was affected by world events of the time, maybe it was the unfortunate critical response to YOUNG GIRLS and the premature death of star Francoise Dorléac. Maybe I’m overreaching with all this and it’s simply the result of the narrative becoming muddled in his dealings with Columbia Pictures which apparently didn’t go so well. Whatever it is, it seems to result in MODEL SHOP feeling somewhat incomplete, like it’s missing those moments in the earlier films where all the elements seem to combine to provide that feeling of ultimate cinematic rapture. We never get it here and in some ways the end leaves us wanting. And yet, I find myself driving all the way across town to see it yet again when it plays. Or I’ll just have to live my life here in Los Angeles, which sometimes has a tendency to feel like MODEL SHOP more than I care to admit.