For those whose concern is purely visual and whose ideal is an abstract symphony of images, Ophüls has the status of one of the very great directors. For spectators and critics who demand in addition to the images the sort of human insight and moral depth that a play or a novel can give, he is merely a minor master, maker of exquisite but rather empty films. (1)
This kind of reaction is even more common in relation to the work of Jacques Demy, who, in critical terms at least, has largely been ignored by writers and historians. Whereas his wife Agnès Varda’s interest in overtly feminist, political and historical themes, and her embrace of new filmmaking technologies, are easier to quantify in academic terms, and thus to write about, Demy’s cinema, articulated through light, colour, music and movement, is difficult to grasp or define, leaving his few (mostly male) acolytes to adulate vaguely with terms like “charm” and “rapture” (2). The para-verbal, quicksilver quality of Demy’s work is even proclaimed a virtue, as “Purest cinema” (3).
Though partly named after the heroine of Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955; Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg, 1930] is also evoked in Lola’s [Anouk Aimée] song), Demy’s film is in no way a remake, or even an obvious homage to Ophuls’ final masterpiece. It is Ophuls’ sensibility that is celebrated, his insistence on “insignificant… unobtrusive” details as “often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive” (4); his use of complex camera movement not to represent the emotions of a particular character in a crudely “expressionist” way, but to chart the pulse of emotion itself as it quickens and slackens, warms and cools. Most of all, Demy is indebted to Ophuls’ meticulous narrative structures – the circular form that begins and ends Lola with the marginal-yet-crucial character of Michel (Jacques Harden) driving in and out of Nantes in his white Cadillac, and the film’s anti-hero, Roland (Marc Michel), late for an appointment; the apparently casual patterning of comings, goings, coincidences, doublings (treblings!) (5).
In a very moving fashion, Demy displaces the design of La ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950) (6); instead of each character sleeping with the next, in Lola young and old, male and female, yearn for someone who loves another, projecting their emotions and ideals onto those who refuse the burden (7). This gridlock is seemingly broken by the abrupt – though flagged from the first shot – happy ending, but this is rendered somewhat absurd by the melodramatic weeping of Lola’s dancer colleagues who witness her reunion with Michel; and is further deflated when this couple drive off, and Lola looks back at the desolate Roland, an ending as paradoxically liberating and uncertain as that of Louis Malle’s Les amants (The Lovers, 1958) (8).
But if it was merely an Ophuls pastiche, Demy’s film would be of only limited interest (9). Lola is ultimately much more than this and is claimed by some to be the greatest film of the nouvelle vague (10). Demy takes the hermetic, artificial world analysed by his mentor, and aerates it with the bright sunlight of location shooting. Far from causing Ophulsian preciosity to wither, however, this gleam gives it a new dynamic. Late-19th century operetta Vienna is replaced by the facts and artefacts of 20th century American popular culture: the facts being the sailors who spent their shore leave in small French ports such as Nantes; the artefacts being the records, comics, clothes and other commodities; the language and attitude; the “world of infinite possibility” promised by America (11).
The figure of the sailor combines fact and artefact, being both a sociological phenomenon of mid-20th century France, and a reminder of Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (George Sidney, 1945) and On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949), classic tales of sailors on leave itching to get laid (12). In Lola, such figures are marginalised in narrative terms, but are everywhere in its spirit. Indeed, for all his reputation as an “escapist” and “fantasist” creating “a make-believe world” (13), Demy trained as a documentarist and was apprenticed to Georges Rouquier (maker of the classic Farrebique, ou les quatre saisons, 1946), who produced his first professional work, the short docudrama Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1955) (14). Nantes – where Demy grew up – is observed with the eye of a local historian (as would Cherbourg, Nice, Rochefort, Los Angeles and the other settings of later films), with great attention paid to the rhythms and fabric of daily life (15).
As if in blithe response to the “serious” critics that would marginalise him, Yves Montand speaks for Demy in the director’s swansong, Trois places pour le 26 (Three Places for the 26th, 1988):
Message movies, movies for the head,
Movies cause ideas to spread,
Suspense movies, and all the rest,
But I still like musicals best!
Demy would make a sort-of-sequel to Lola in Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), a day-glo operetta, with luckless Roland returning as a diamond “merchant”, playing saviour to another widow and her teenage daughter, and again wooing (this time successfully) a woman who doesn’t love him. Lola was originally conceived as a musical, “with ballets and songs and colour and costumes”, but could only accommodate Lola’s chanson for budgetary reasons (16).
Already there is a sense in Lola of Demy pushing against the “law-of-physics” limitations of plain “drama”, with music serving as both emotional carrier and ironic commentator. Demy’s use of the musical in quotidian settings offers a two-way exchange – it allows non-stereotyped feeling, open narratives and all sorts of usually taboo content (pregnancy before marriage, prostitution) into the genre, while freeing the colour and emotional excess normally scrimped in social realism. Michel Legrand’s music is one of the film’s facets that align it most evidently with the nouvelle vague (Godard’s regular photographer Raoul Coutard being another) – the accelerated noir-jazz when Roland stumbles into a diamond-smuggling plot is both hilarious (17) and an emblem for the way Lola holds out promises of conventional plots, relationships, and endings, only to diffuse and defuse them, restlessly and unsatisfactorily. Just like life.
Roland’s musical leitmotif in Lola will become a full-blown aria in Les parapluies de Cherbourg (18), sung over haunting tracking shots of the earlier film’s now-deserted arcade (which will later serve as backdrop to another, more violent and thoroughly dés-enchant-ée Demy/Legrand opera, Une chambre en ville, 1982 ).Lola herself will reappear in another, “plaintive” sequel, Model Shop (1969) (20), hiring herself out as photographic subject to Los Angeles perverts to support her son Yvon, now that Michel has left her for Jackie (Jeanne Moreau) from La baie des anges! Demy’s dream was to create in film a world à la Balzac, where characters from his and other’s films would meet, interact with and illuminate each other (21); that dream begins with Lola, which Derek Elley called “the fons et origo of Demy’s whole oeuvre” (22).
- Roy Armes, French Cinema Since 1946, vol. 1. The Great Tradition, A. Zwemmer and A. S. Barnes, London and New Jersey, 1966, p. 55. Incidentally, Anouk Aimée’s Lola is on the cover of this work’s second volume.
- Ginette Billard, “Jacques Demy and His World”, Film Quarterly vol. 18, no. 1, Autumn 1964, p. 26; David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Morrow, New York, 1976, p. 577.
- Robin Bean, “Lola”, Films and Filming vol. 8, no. 5, February 1962, p. 34.
- Armes, p. 57.
- Some critics see Cécile (Annie Duperoux) and Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette) as images of Lola as child and older woman. See Mark Shivas, “Lola”, Film Quarterly vol. 18, no. 1, Autumn 1964, p. 50. Labourdette played a cabaret dancer in Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson, 1945), who, as Joel Siegel says of Lola Montès, “gives her body but retains her soul”; photographs and dialogue from Les dames du Bois de Boulogne are used in Lola; the film was directed by Bresson and written by Jean Cocteau, both acknowledged influences on Demy, who filmed Cocteau’s Le bel indifférent (1957), and cast his muse Jean Marais in Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin, 1970) and Parking (1985), his remake of Orphée (Cocteau, 1950). Joel Siegel, “I Found it at the Nudies: Jacques Demy’s Lola, at Last”, Renaissance of the Film, ed. Julius Bellone, Collier, London, 1970, p. 152 (first published in Film Heritage vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1966).
- Peter John Dyer, “The New Frontiers”, Sight and Sound vol. 31, no. 1, Winter 1961-62, p. 20.
- Peter John Dyer, “Lola”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 29, no. 337, February 1962, p. 20.
- One actor considered for the part of Roland was Jean-Marc Bory, one of the two amants; the other, Jeanne Moreau, would star in Demy’s next feature, La baie des anges (Bay of Angels, 1962).
- Other influences attributed to Demy include Jean Vigo (for the sudden, heart-stopping slow-motion in the fairground sequence), Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli, René Clair, animator Paul Grimault (with whom Demy worked), Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, Luchino Visconti and Jean-Pierre Melville. See Dyer, “Lola”, p. 20; Billard, p. 27; Jean-Pierre Berthomé, “Jacques Demy”, Film Dope no. 10, September 1976, pp. 2-3, 6; Thomson, p. 132; Derek Elley, “Lola”, Films and Filming no. 420, October 1989, p. 47.
- See, for example, Siegel, p. 149.
- Siegel, p. 152; he reminds us that Roland was raised in the United States.
- Siegel, p. 152; Kelly would feature in Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, Jacques Demy, 1967).
- Pauline Kael, “The Lady From Across the Sea”, Going Steady, Temple Smith, London, 1970, p. 264; Billard, p. 27; Roy Armes, French Cinema Since 1946, vol. 2. The Personal Style, A. Zwemmer and A. S. Barnes, London and New Jersey, 1966, p. 137.
- An early British article on Demy even introduced him as a “documentary film-maker”! Dyer, “Lola”, p. 20.
- Dyer, “Lola”, p. 20.
- Demy quoted in Berthomé, p. 5.
- Bean, p. 34. This parodic port-crime plot was first essayed by the teenage Demy in a puppet film, Attaque nocturne (1947-1948).
- “Long ago, I loved a woman/She didn’t love me/Her name was Lola/Long ago/Disappointed, I tried to forget her/So I left France…/I went to the end of the world…/I had no more taste for life.”
- Demy called Les parapluies de Cherbourg a “film enchant-ée”, both an enchanted film and also one in song. Billard, p. 27.
- James Quandt, “In the City of Fallen Angels”, Sight and Sound vol. 17, no. 11, November 2007, p. 10.
- Armes, French Cinema Since 1946, vol. 2. The Personal Style, p. 139.
- Elley, p. 47.
Lola (1961 France/Italy 90 mins)
Prod Co: Rome Paris Films Prod: Georges de Beauregrad, Carlo Ponti Dir, Scr: Jacques Demy Phot: Raoul Coutard Ed: Anne-Marie Cotret, Monique Teisseire Prod Des: Bernard Evein Mus: Michel Legrand
Cast: Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, Alan Scott, Elina Labourdette, Margo Lion