Columbia sets Jacques Demy loose on the streets of Los Angeles in the pivotal year of 1968. Although it puts a coda on the French director’s bundle of romantic films, with his special philosophical approach to Love, this starring picture for Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood doesn’t quite catch fire in the same way. If our City of the Angels indeed defeated Demy’s unstoppable knack for romantic delirium, we owe him an apology.
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date April 17, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Anouk Aimée, Gary Lockwood, Alexandra Hay, Carol Cole, Tom Holland, Severn Darden, Neil Elliot, Mille, Duke Hobbie, Anne Randall, Craig Littler, Hilarie Thompson, Jeanne Sorel, Fred Willard.
Cinematography: Michel Hugo
Film Editor: Walter Thompson
Shirley Ulmer: Script Supervisor!
Original Music: Spirit
Written by Jacques Demy, Carole Eastman
Produced and Directed by Jacques Demy
The unusual Model Shop sees another hot French director lured to try his luck in California. Michelangelo Antonioni didn’t mind spending MGM’s millions on his visionary/flaky (choose one) Zabriskie Point. Columbia may have snagged Jacques Demy on the promise that he’d spend thousands, not millions. His missus and muse Agnès Varda almost made a picture for Columbia as well, but they wouldn’t give her final cut. The couple invaded California for a year or two. Varda came back with a fistful of fascinating film work. Demy capped off his string of ’60s romantic explorations with a quirky picture that that didn’t expand his appeal.
The movie is very much in the mold of Demy’s earlier romantic ruminations, in which lovesick characters loiter in various French seaports, hoping to connect with idealized lost loves. Demy saw Los Angeles as a sprawling city of a million possibilities, all connected by the automobile — but also as a place where romance goes to die. The picture tries to be loose and free-form, but it seems constricted by his imperfect ear for English- language dialogue. His screenplay (with Carole Eastman) explains little for an hour, and then hits us with a great deal of explanatory dialogue. Demy fans will be enthralled, and others won’t have a clue.
For the lovers of Demy’s four earlier romances, Model Shop will feel like the closing of a circle. In wrapping up his cycle of love affairs, Demy’s original heroine Lola, aka Cécile, may be beginning another cycle of romantic hope.
Disaffected architecture student George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) has quit a related job because he can’t be creative. Living in an old house on South Venice Beach, he is about to break up with his current girlfriend,the ambitious actress Gloria (Alexandra Hay of Skidoo). George fast-talks some repo men into letting him scramble into Hollywood to borrow money so he can keep his green MG. Relief comes from his pal Jay Ferguson (himself), who has just signed his band Spirit to a record deal. George then becomes infatuated with a Frenchwoman he sees in a parking lot. She’s Lola (Anouk Aimée), a model in a tawdry storefront on Santa Monica Blvd. where men pay to take pictures of pliable models. George blows most of his car money there. He almost takes a job on a Hollywood alternative newspaper, but then learns that he’s being called up for the draft in just three days. He goes back to the model shop and begs Lola to spend the evening with him. She begins by telling him how she came to be in California, in what he calls a ‘degrading’ job.
Columbia possibly thought they would be getting Ms. Aimée in another A Man and a Woman, co-starring ‘that guy’ from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The last time we saw Gary Lockwood his body had to be ditched somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Now he’s unfrozen and alive again, but suffering from a serious case of SCD: SoCal Disillusion.
The studio may not have realized that they were enabling Jacques Demy to elaborate on the interlocking magical romance pattern established in his celebrated French movies. Set in Nantes, Lola (1961) sees life as a continual set of accidental, coincidental meetings in the street and inside a certain shopping pavilion. Romantic ‘scenarios’ repeat with different partners — lovers experiencing unique thrills don’t realize that countless couples before them have traced the exact same patterns. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg morphs into a full-scale Michel Legrand operetta, painting an otherwise realistic Cherbourg in candy colors. Here is where the inter-film connections begin. One character in Lola appears to be an extension of a character from the 1945 Robert Bresson film Les dame du Bois de Boulogne. The lonely Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) from Lola returns to play a smaller role in Umbrellas. Set in a third seaport, The Young Girls of Rochefort multiplies the individual romances fourfold, and spins off into a full-on MGM musical, adding Gene Kelly- style dance, and Gene Kelly himself.
Model Shop looks back at all of this romantic delirium as something that happened in a lost past. Lola shows George photos of her ‘great love’ Michel from Lola, who took her away to America in his large white convertible. This man of Lola’s dreams was spun Rumplestiltskin- like from a Hollywood movie. ‘Michel’ was lost in the South Pacific on the island of Matareva. That’s the story of Mark Robson’s 1951 Return to Paradise. A theatre in Lola is actually playing Return to Paradise. The idea is that, under the pale everyday daylight, we’re all living private romantic dreams.
In Model Shop we learn that Michel ran off to Las Vegas with the heroine of another Jacques Demy mini-epic, the gambling addict Jacqueline Demaistre (Jeanne Moreau) of Bay of Angels. As everyone in Los Angeles needs a car, Lola now drives a large white convertible. George is concerned that he’ll be killed in Vietnam; we learn that that is exactly the fate that befell an earlier sailor boyfriend of Lola’s, Frankie (Alan Scott). The Frankie character also shows up in Agnés Varda’s masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7, which stars Corrine Marchand, who played one of of the nightclub girls in Lola. Confusing?
Model Shop has one more connection with Varda’s Cléo, in that both Cléo and George are seen wandering around during a single day, contemplating a situation that might become a death sentence.
The idea of Gary Lockwood lost in orbit on the streets of Hollywood sounds ideal for Demy. The endless auto trek around the not-so-glamorous streets is appropriate to the milieu. So is the notion that a tow truck repossessing one’s car is the Los Angeles equivalent of an angel of Death (cite Sunset Blvd.). An under-employed slacker like George might indeed buy an expensive sports car he’s not likely to keep very long. But not much else cooperates with Demy’s dream of lost love on Venice Beach, even if we see what remained in 1969 of the Venice sidewalk colonnade made famous in Touch of Evil.
The main problem with Model Shop is Demy’s vision of the Model Shop itself. The impractical nightclub of the original Lola was a fantasy abstraction where women with hearts of gold made men happy . . . the kind of fantasy where the woman isn’t exploited, and can actually find the man of her dreams. Demy’s concept of a Hollywood Model Shop doesn’t ring true, either as a fantasy or as a sordid reality. He locates the storefront shop correctly, on a part of Santa Monica Blvd that might have been an unincorporated strip where unlicensed places could operate. But a shop like that would almost certainly be a front for prostitution, which makes Lola an outright whore, without the mysterious unreality of her job singing and dancing back in Lola. Does Demy understand this, or is he purposely smashing his previous idealized fantasy about Lola? Supporting this odd disconnect is Lola’s quick, unexplained visit to a house in the Hollywood Hills. She appears to be a call girl, plain and simple; it explains why she says she no longer believes in love.
As vice in Los Angeles was always much uglier, we’d expect the Model Shop to be more like the degrading peep show in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. It seems false when George is greeted by hostesses that seem available yet chaste and innocent. Model Shop doesn’t have Lola’s romantic distance, of a fantasy augmented with music and dance.
The real downer is the lack of chemistry between Aimée and Lockwood, which is further labored by the on-the-nose dialogue and what I’d have to guess might be Demy’s tin ear for the English language. Lola accepts George in her bed simply because he’s persistent, and accepts his money as well. Is Demy saying that his romantic dreams no longer function? Poor George has lost two girls and is heading off for the Army. Maybe he was better off left frozen and drifting in outer space.
All those inter-movie connections I tallied above couldn’t have meant anything to audiences in 1969. Maybe one American viewer in five hundred would have been aware of the thematic linkage — and he probably read a review. In Umbrellas of Cherbourg, When Roland Cassard suddenly sings of his lost Lola, viewers aware of the connection gasp at the notion that particulars in one movie can inform, haunt another movie. In Model Shop all the inter-Demy connections spill out in one fairly undramatic, un-cinematic speech by Lola.
I like Demy so much that I’m tempted to say that production conditions could have put him off his best work; dealing with an uncooperative American crew might have been discouraging. And perhaps the language barrier explains why so much of the movie sounds hollow. We smile when supposedly ‘American’ characters in the French films are obviously French, but it doesn’t feel right when normal Angelenos speak as if working from a phonetic translation.
The truth is that Alexandra Hay’s generic nice-girl character never looks or sounds natural. Some of the non-pro players on the street are okay, and I see that Severn Darden snuck in for a short bit. The youth attitude is a bit ‘off.’ The supposed semi-radicals in the newspaper office talk as if they were members of a 4H Club. They are at least more natural than what we see in the turkey The Strawberry Statement, where every dialogue line is salted with a ‘with it’ expression, and every hippie’s crash pad is spiked with the covers of albums being pushed by MGM records.
If the open-ended finish seems weak, we still love cruising around Los Angeles in Gary Lockwood’s MG. The house that Lola goes to in the Hollywood Hills looks almost exactly like one seen four years earlier in Lord Love a Duck. I think it’s up on the Mount Olympus hilltop circle. We see Gary cruising down Santa Monica Blvd (you can tell because it still has rails, ten years after the Red Cars disappeared), and turning from Western Blvd. onto Melrose (about ten blocks from CineSavant Central). The parking lot is (I think) on the North side of Sunset, somewhere near the Crossroads of the World. The photo developing studio and the hippie newspaper office are on Selma, between Cahuenga and Wilcox. We also climb a West Hollywood street up to the Sunset Strip.
How nostalgic can Los Angeles have been in late 1968 during filming? Charlie Manson’s minions were likely rumbling down these same streets, in some old wreck of a car. If you’re a fellow Angeleno and wish to take another cinematic road trip into this era, I can recommend Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man (1972). It cruises the whole L.A. Basin from the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park, through Hollywood and into downtown.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Model Shop is a beautiful encoding of this ably-filmed feature that recognizes Los Angeles as a place where people live in their cars — one of Lola and George’s conversations is car-to-car, as if they were talking on horseback. Demy doesn’t give his picture quite the ‘big color’ look of his musicals and the art direction doesn’t try to drown the décor with the hippie bric-a-brac of the time. Yet we scour the walls for posters and newspaper clippings the same way we watch out for street signs.
The audio tracks we hear as a soundtrack are from the band Spirit, and I’m told that some of the underscore is made of known Spirit songs sans lyrics. They fit fairly well but do not make a major statement, especially at the finale. We applaud Demy for not going for the musical ‘recognition’ effects of The Graduate and Easy Rider, two pictures that use well-known pop songs as emotional & contextual wallpaper.
Twilight Time’s extras are limited to a short original trailer and a pair of quickie TV spots. Julie Kirgo’s astute liner essay shows that she’s equally intrigued by the romantic ‘interlocking fates’ philosophy of Demy and Varda. When I was an undergraduate at UCLA in 1973 or so, I bid farewell to a grad student who was leaving for Paris to understudy with Jacques Demy, his favorite director. He tried to tell me about Demy’s movies having an overarching, all-connecting character scheme, but at the time I didn’t know what he was talking about. I never found out how his adventure turned out. I confess that I like to think that he met some French woman, who also had a connection with . . .
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good – Minus
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, TV Spots, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson