Pick up any book on the French New Wave and the exploits of the young Turks of the Right Bank, (Godard-Truffaut-Rohmer-Rivette-Chabrol) are well-chronicled with enthusiasm and awe. Such texts also include a chapter or so on the Left Bank, i.e. Resnais-Varda-Marker. And within there, there’s maybe, like, a sentence, or if we’re really lucky, a paragraph, on Jacques Demy, (once, and this was a real surprise, I found a book with three consecutive pages devoted to him).
Look, if I had to spend the rest of my life watching films from the directors born out of one period/movement it would be those of the New Wave. And the aforementioned stars of the Right and Left bank (literally determined by whether they lived on the right or left bank of Paris, as well as the Left’s initial bent toward experimental as well as more politically radical cinema), there’s not a single director (with the exception of Marker, a soon to be corrected blind spot) whose work I don’t absolutely love. I sincerely cannot imagine my life without Le Mepris, or Je t’aime, je t’aime, or Jules et Jim. But sometimes, the screaming and embittered politics of certain auteurs, or the prevalence of talk-over-action protagonists, gets a little wearying.
But Demy’s different.
Demy’s someone to turn to any day of the week, a master of elegance, charm, a raconteur of fairy tales who keenly understands the heart’s follies. I don’t think he’s ever filmed a villain, and even those characters that are dubious are portrayed with empathy. The only way I can account for his textbook slighting is by assuming that Demy’s aversion for outward radicalism in form (with the exception of The Umbrella of Cherbourg) and content is what’s relegated him to being a parenthesis. That and some would say that his later work just doesn’t hold up in quality (which, as far as I can tell, for the most part is not true). There’s always more to his films than meets the eye; the challenges are present, they just lie hidden beneath candy-colored umbrellas and donkey skin.
So, in tracing Demy’s career, or as much of it as is readily available via home video, let’s begin at the beginning: Lola. The film centers around two main protagonists; the eponymous Lola and Roland. Lola is a cabaret dancer with a young son, who’s been doggedly awaiting the return of Michel, the boy’s father, for 7 years (Michel refused to see his family impoverished and left to make a fortune). Roland is a childhood friend of Lola’s who’s intelligent and charming, but utterly bored with his life and dreaming of a way out. They run into each other after having been apart for more than a decade, and the love that Roland has always secretly felt for Lola is reignited. Things play out in tortuous, comical and painful ways, as other characters and love affairs are thrown into the mix.
Essentially though, at its core, the film is about dreamers. Roland dreams of traveling far away from Nantes and of being with Lola. Lola dreams that Michel will finally return to her one day. Cecil, a young girl who reminds Roland of Lola, dreams of being a ballet dancer. Michel (although not really present till the end) wishes to make his fortune, and so on. Most of the characters, and Lola especially, go off of pure faith, and in some cases it pays off (Lola) while in others it doesn’t (Roland). Michel’s homecoming, after 7 years absence, with riches in tow, is something straight out of a fairy tale, the ultimate reward for a delirious dreamer. Also, his return brings to mind Visconti’s White Nights (which itself is based on a story by Dostoyevsky), in which a young girl stubbornly awaits the return of her lover, played by Jean Marais, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Jacques Harden’s Michel.
When I first saw this film, I experienced Roland as a rather whiny and tedious character. A man who by the looks of it has everything going for him—affability, intelligence, capability—but who’d rather read than partake in a job he doesn’t care for. Impractical to say the least. But now, having re-watched this film after some three years, everything that I once found petulant and irritating is now sweetly idealistic and romantic. And Lola, with her wide-eyed exuberance (a far cry from Anouk’s stern scorned wife in 8 ½), is a firefly, lighting up the screen with her charm, always moving, gasping. At times she teeters on the brink of becoming annoying, but Aimee manages to ground the character in a true depth of feeling.
The camerawork mimics the characters in their wishes for movement and change. The camera is hardly ever still. Even when Lola and Michel reunite, and are both seated side by side at the cabaret, the camera wavers from left to right, never quite locking on a steady shot. Or, when Roland meets Cecil and her mother in the books shop, there is a lot of quick panning as they engage in conversation, the camera working hard to keep up with the stream of dialogue. This all works to create a universe that’s ever-evolving and transitioning, sometimes to the benefit of and in accordance with the wishes of the characters, and at other times not.
Lola was supposed to be a musical, but Demy couldn’t get the necessary funding for a large scale production. So he pared down the script and with a skeleton crew and five weeks to shoot went to work. Even though this isn’t a musical, music is hugely important in this film. Take the laconic opening shots of Michel driving down the street in his convertible, the score swelling with violins. Then, all of a sudden, the music changes to a primal drum beat, and the editing becomes much more rapid and jagged, creating tension and urgency building up to Michel’s almost running over a group of sailors. Demy also uses music for irony, as in the scene when Roland goes to see the barber about a job and finds out that he’s being employed by a small time criminal. As the barber discloses the job and airs a few threats the score is comically self-aware, drum beats and sax attempting to evoke mystery and menace, while acknowledging the comedy of the situation.
With Lola Demy laid the groundwork for nearly his entire career. While the film ends with Roland’s heartbreak and Lola’s one in a million chance of Michel actually coming back for her, the characters’ storylines are picked up once again in Model Shop (Lola) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Roland). The exceptional score was composed by Michel Legrand who would go on to become a frequent collaborator, most noted for his work on Cherbourg. Fred (Lola’s sort-of lover), is a sailor, a precursor to the sailors of The Young Girls of Rochefort. And when Roland has dinner with Cecil and her mother, the mother remarks that gambling wastes peoples lives; Demy’s next film, Bay of Angels, would deal with that exact topic. With each subsequent film Demy evolved his tapestry of fables and dreamers.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.