My first viewing of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels was some years ago. I remembered it as a sweeping romance between two beautiful faces, forgetting entirely that a great deal of the romance occurs not between a man and a woman, but between a woman and a roulette wheel. In Bay of Angels, Demy pares down the multitude of intertwining love stories found in Lola, relating the points of a love triangle.
Jean (Claude Mann), a young bank clerk, catches the gambling bug from a co-worker. He decides to take his vacation in the South of France where he runs into and falls in love with Jacqueline (Jeanne Moreau), a woman who would in all likelihood use her own child as collateral if it meant having another go at the roulette table.
Whereas in Lola the characters certainly had their flaws, in Bay of Angels, Demy makes Jean, and especially Jacqueline, as close to downright unlikeable as he’s ever come. Jacqueline is seductive, vulgar, selfish, and prone to histrionics, yet, despite everything, charming in a way only Moreau could have made her. Jean is humorless, dour even, sometimes turning to violence when threatened with the loss of Jacqueline. Yet no matter how petulant either of the characters becomes they remain sympathetic, for their actions are primarily governed by frenzied and blind obsession in pursuit of the object of their love.
By the time Bay of Angels came out in 1963, Moreau already had The Lovers, Elevator to the Gallows, and Jules and Jim behind her and was a mega-star in France. And as much as Moreau’s character is often appalling, I admire the actress’s fearlessness in being ugly—obscene, even. Her naturally light brown hair is bleached to a Marilyn Monroe-esque blond, the lids of her eyes burdened by thick black streaks of imposing shadow. The white dress-suit she wears during her first run-in with Jean is traded in for low-backed numbers sometimes complemented by a feather boa; her sexuality reaches soprano territory complemented by base notes of vulgarity. There’s something positively distasteful about her appearance and the actions of her character: abandoning her child, begging money off others to feed her addiction, never being serious about Jean’s love. Yet there’s a great vulnerability to her; she’s plagued by a disease, an obsession that has stripped her of her life. Yes, she’s a willing accomplice to its ravages, but how many of us feed and harvest precisely what in the end hurts us must, lost and carried off by the roaring tornado of our own desires?
The narrative revolves around the act of gambling, and it’s gambling which also becomes the central theme of Bay of Angels. For, of course, gambling isn’t limited to cards and roulette wheels. In a casino you can stake a fortune, everything you own, on the outcome of a card, or on a ball dizzily, wearily coming to rest on a certain number. You can lose it all, or win it all. And love is, too, one of the greatest gambles a human being can make. If the object of your desire returns your love then it’s like the world’s pulse is your own. But if you’re rebuffed or scorned everything falls to static. There’s a thrill to holding your breath and praying that the roulette ball stops on the number 17, or that the pause the sad-eyed girl with the Monroe coif is taking is one that will lead to words of eager affirmation. The act of gambling lasts only a few seconds, and then the ball stops spinning, the girl opens her mouth.
Jacqueline tells Jean that she was once married, has a son, and that her ex has sole custody of the child. She dispatches all this with no great despondency or regret. C’est la vie. Her life’s purpose isn’t to be found in the act of being a wife, a mother, or a lover. Her ears are attuned to the call of cards shuffling, chips clinking against one another, and the croupier calling for bets. Jacqueline isn’t just a gambler; she loves gambling, and is willing to stake everything (her marriage, child, and last possession), all to call in another bet. And just as she’s wildly in love with gambling, Jean is in love with her. He takes a shine to the casino, but always knows when to walk away from the table. Gambling for money isn’t his disease; he gambles on love, on the fact that Jacqueline will one day be satiated and step out from the casino doors to embrace him with the same unyielding ardor she displays for a roulette ball. Though he knows when to walk away from the table, for Jacqueline’s sake, for love of her, he remains in the casinos far past what sanity and rationale would allow, betting to keep her happy.
Demy perfectly, absolutely understands the connection between love and gambling, using Michel Legrand’s swelling, desperately romantic piano notes to underscore the association. Legrand’s impassioned score plays during two early instances of the spinning roulette wheel. The music is associated with the breathless thrill and act of gambling. The next time we hear those piano notes aren’t at a casino, but in a hotel room. After winning a near obscene amount of money the night before, the two of them take a room in a grand hotel. As they enter the chamber the music swells; Jacqueline giddily takes in the view, they grin at one another, tease and playfully fall into bed. From the roulette wheel to the bedroom, the gamble’s the same.
But what’s entirely strange about the film is its ending, coming as an improbably sparkling diamond bow. While seated at the roulette table Jacqueline brusquely rebuffs Jean and tells him to go away. Upon noticing that he has indeed left, Jacqueline runs out of the casino after him. The two of them embrace and walk away as the camera pulls back and Legrand’s motif sounds once again. Nothing in the preceding course of events makes this ending at all believable. If Jacqueline was willing to abandon her child in favor of gambling, repeatedly asserting that her life’s blood is the casino, then, no matter how much we may want Jean’s “purer” gamble on love to pay off, the ending is quite unlikely.
What’s makes this particularly unusual is that Demy isn’t one to shy away from conclusions littered with pierced hearts and chewed-up dreams, doing so repeatedly throughout the course of his career (Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Model Shop). Thus, I’m not sure how seriously we are really meant to take the camera’s fade out on the two of them, arms wrapped around each other. For if we’re to accept the preceding 85 minutes, the only thing that would make sense for minute 86 would be Jacqueline running rabidly back to the open arms of her great love, once again willing to stake it all on the luck of a rolling ball or the turn of a card.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.