Jacques Demy's Lola & Bay of Angels, and
Agnes Varda's documentary The World of Jacques Demy
Jacques Demy (19311990) has been acclaimed for the sheer beauty and entertainment of films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964); but in this essay I focus on some of the more subtle and complex aspects of his first two features Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963) which show him as much an artist as an inspired craftsman. Lola and Bay of Angels have been painstakingly restored by his widow, the exceptional filmmaker Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, and the documentary reviewed here, The World of Jacques Demy), and rereleased to enormous acclaim, first theatrically and now on DVD from Wellspring. This page ends with Demy's complete filmography as director and writer. In separate reviews, I look at Demy's other films on DVD: the landmark musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the fairy tale Donkey Skin, and the farcical A Slightly Pregnant Man.
Directed by Agnès Varda
1995, France — 90 minutes, color and black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Documentary
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Review — The World of Jacques Demy
The World of Jacques Demy is an excellent place to begin exploring the filmmaker's life and works. Made in 1995, five years after Demy's tragically early death, it is Agnès Varda's third tribute to her late husband an intimate look at his brilliant vision and techniques. The documentary was honored by being chosen as an official selection at the Venice Film Festival. It should also be noted that some people believe that Demy's reputation has been eclipsed by the brilliance of Varda's work.
Her richly-detailed documentary includes clips from all of Demy's films, including Lola and Bay of Angels [see frame to the right], his musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and A Room in Town (1982), and his fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970). Varda also includes interviews with the people who worked with him and knew him best, including actors Anouk Aimée, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, Harrison Ford (whom Demy cast in 1969 as the star of his first Hollywood movie, The Model Shop until Columbia Pictures forced Ford out, saying "He has no future as an actor"), composers Michel Legrand and Michel Colombier, Demy's daughter and son, as well as some of his most ardent fans. The film also includes rare home video footage of the director with such friends as François Truffaut and Jim Morrison.
Although Varda offers many insights into all phases of Demy's life and career, she employs a non-chronological approach. The documentary is framed by the heartfelt letter of a young woman who was profoundly influenced by Demy's films, but who never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Varda then proceeds to an in-depth look at Lola, her soon-to-be husband's first feature and a seminal, not to mention genial, masterpiece of the French New Wave. Varda presents brief, evocative excerpts from such people as longtime Demy collaborator Michel Legrand. At one point he tells, in vivid detail, of the thrill he felt having Demy act out every part of Lola, as the writer/director expressed what he wanted the music to be moment by moment. Legrand then offers a simple but resonant comment on the importance of music to Demy's entire body of work: "I could hear the music even in the silence."
Throughout, Varda intercuts details of Demy's working-class childhood in Nantes (where Lola is set), his rapturous discovery of the movies, and his blossoming in film school, with his collaborator's reminiscences, as well as clips, related to the films he made between 1961 and 1988. What emerges is a portrait of a loving, deeply-thoughtful, and complex entertainer and artist who, throughout his career, strove to realize his ambition of a huge interlinked work, a sort of contemporary filmic analogy to Balzac's sprawling but interconnected Human Comedy. As Demy put it, "My idea is to make fifty films that will be ilnked together and that will mutually illuminate each other's meaning through shared charcters." Sadly, he never lived to complete the full scope of his vision. But as you will see below, from his very first feature he introduced recurring characters. From Lola, the title character (still played by Anouk Aimée) returns in The Model Shop, set in Los Angeles; and Roland Cassard (still played by Marc Michel) is one of the major characters in Demy's third film, the sublime pop-opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg this time in an all-singing incarnation.
There is a wealth of information about the filmmaker in The World of Jacques Demy. The generous number of clips from his films makes it all the more frustrating that, as of early 2004, only a small fraction of his work is available on DVD. With the renewed interest in his career, we can only hope that that situation will soon change. Until then, we can savor the pleasures, and depths, of his early films. Please note that in discussing those films I reveal some, but not all, of the plot twists just so you know.
People Appearing Uncredited (Archival Footage)
People in the Film
- 4:3 full frame presented in the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in color and black & white
- Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
- French with optional English subtitles
- Trailers for Lola and Bay of Angels
- Filmographies for Demy and Varda
1961, France — 90 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 2.35:1 — Drama
Bittersweet romantic comedy/drama about a cabaret singer and the men in her life.
Review — Lola
Set in the contemporary (1961) port city of Nantes, Lola is a magical yet gritty tale of the title character (played by Anouk Aimée La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, A Man and a Woman), an open-hearted cabaret performer hoping for the return of Michel (Jacques Harden), her young son's who years earlier lit off for "the colonies" to make his fortune. Lola is now having a fling with a sweet American sailor named Frankie (Allan Scott), who reminds her of Michel. The film is also the story of Lola's childhood friend, the broody but romantic Roland Cassard (Marc Michel Le Trou), whose fateful encounter with her, at the beginning of the film, reignites the torch he's been carrying since the war. At various times, it seems that Lola might choose either Frankie or Roland, but she still pines for Michel. During a fateful three days, all of the major characters fantastically cross paths time and time again, connecting or not in what almost seems a dance of coincidence and desire. Sometimes the results are comic, other times deeply poignant.
Lola is an absolutely wonderful film one of the most extraordinary debut features I know and even more original than it might at first appear. It simultaneously looks at love, and human nature, with fresh eyes even as it draws on a rich cinematic tradition both popular (MGM musicals) and serious (Max Ophüls, as well as the burgeoning French New Wave). In this essay, I focus on how Demy achieves his vision. I don't mean to drain its glowing immediacy; rather I hope to show how Demy's artistry brings vitality and depth to his simple, heartfelt yet multi-layered film.
With his well-known love for the musical, Lola has been called Demy's 'musical without music.' More precisely, it seems a "musical" with only one principal song (Lola's incredibly catchy cabaret turn, "It's Me... Lola," written by Agnès Varda), yet which captures the feel of a Hollywood musical, although in unique ways. As Demy recounts, in an archival interview in The World of Jacques Demy, he had originally conceived the film as a full-blown extravaganza. But then he met, through his friend Jean-Luc Godard, the savvy producer Georges de Beauregard (who had recently scored a hit with Godard's Breathless and who would soon produce many more of Godard's films, as well as Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 and Melville's Le Doulos). De Beauregard told Demy that the big musical numbers, elaborate costumes and even Technicolor of his lavish original conception ("It would have cost two and half million francs") would have to go if he wanted to get the film made now. (You could argue that Demy repaid the favor to Godard by letting him include, in A Woman is a Woman, some of the scenes and even dialogue from Lola.)
Stylistically, Demy resolutely keeps his fairy tale from degenerating into simple, and cheap, romantic fantasy. He is aided by his great cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, who helped define the distinctive, and endlessly-imitated, look of the French New Wave in such classics as Breathless (1959) and virtually all of Godard's masterpieces of the 1960s, as well as Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and Soft Skin. Although Demy was not in the New Wave's inner circle, he shared several of their aesthetic concerns, including location shooting, exuberant visual style, and a passion for movies (especially American ones) as well as the desire to reshape genres (like the musical) into new, personal forms. (Through his 1962 marriage to Agnés Varda, Demy also had ties to her "Left Bank" crowd, including Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.)
In Lola, Demy and Coutard overlay the romantic plot with the visual austerity of Bresson (Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne, Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket), whose minimalist cinema is as far removed from the MGM musicals, which also contributed to Demy's eclectic vision in this film, as one can imagine. The narrative, and thematic, pull between closed and open is beautifully captured in the 2.35 widescreen compositions, which feel simultaneously spacious, comfortable, and closed. Their most distinctive use of lighting also seen in many of Coutard's Godard films is to expose the shot so that the actors are dark in the foreground, while light blasts in behind them from windows. The effect is distinctly unsettling, as we are forced to imagine the subtle expressions of the actors hidden by the purposefully shadowy lighting. Demy expands on this technique in Bay of Angels. (The Wellspring DVD transfers of both Lola and Bay of Angels are superb, allowing you to appreciate the films' visual subtleties.)
Lola is also a film of aural delights, including Michel Legrand's wonderfully-varied score. It ranges from the sweetly-yearning main theme to a recurring orchestral piece very similar to the title song in 1958's Gigi (first heard when Lola and Frankie tryst at her place) to some jazzy homages to American film noir cues (underscoring the diamond-smuggling subplot with Roland. But Demy also layers the soundtrack with a selective mix of classical works, including the sombre Allegretto movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (used under the opening scene, and in some other keys scenes, including the one in which Madame Desnoyer tells Roland that her brother-in-law is actually Cécile's father) and the quicksilver strains of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (in the scene with Frankie and Cécile at the fair). Yet Lola is allied with the classic Hollywood musical in the sense that its story, and feel, seem inspired by such light-hearted, yet sometimes dark-hued, romps as the quintessential 'sailor musical,' On the Town (1949) and its emotionally darker semi-sequel, It's Always Fair Weather (1955). Both pictures were made collaboratively by two of Demy's favorite auteurs, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, who also created the masterpiece, Singin' in the Rain (1952). (In 1967, Kelly both starred in and choreographed Demy's most traditional musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort.)
Lola is musical in more fundamental ways than its many nods to the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. And it is entirely apt that Demy dedicated the film in large letters on the title screen to Max Ophüls (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de...), one of cinema's greatest artists, and the master of fluid camera movement.
What's in a name? Demy's title character conjures up memories of Ophüls's glorious biopic, Lola Montès (1955), as well as von Sternberg's Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). Although Lola has become a stock name for "chanteuses," I'm inclined to add a couple of other Lolas to our heroine's lineage, namely, the high-kicking temptress, played by Gwen Verdon (whose "Whatever Lola Wants" is quite the solo showstopper), in Stanley Donen and George Abbot's wonderful Damn Yankees (1958; one of the few screen musicals which feels more like Broadway than Hollywood), and perhaps Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954; Marc Michel had starred for Becker in the superb prison-escape film, Le Trou, the year before Lola).
But a greater contribution of Ophüls to this film, and many others, comes from his elaborately flowing camera movements which perfectly integrate thematic, emotional and aesthetic concerns, even while dazzling the eye. Although budgetary restraints forced Demy to scale back his ambitious use of movement on this picture, he was still able to achieve a precise use of rhythm to counterpoint emotion which might have made even Ophüls proud. Lola moves not only beautifully but evocatively. And Demy uses it in many forms from his gifted actors' delivery to the movements of his camera to his graceful editing to achieve a genuinely musical effect.
On one level Demy uses rhythm to achieve a naturalistic effect, as the movement of his camera seeks to capture the pulse of a situation. In one scene Demy brings this strategy to full, almost surreal, bloom: the frenetic bumper car and whirligig scenes with Frankie and Cécile, filmed at an actual biannual fair on the Cours Saint Pierre in Nantes (DVD chapter 18, "At the Carnvial"). There he contrasts Cécile's budding attraction for the young sailor with swirling shots combining a vérité feel with expressionistic compositions, all edited to intensify the manic glee and sexual undercurrents. Further, Demy counterpoints that emotional and visual energy with the coolly-impassioned cascades of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, whose single instrument (harpsichord) also contrasts with the scene's visual, and emotional, density. (To see how Demy uses his mastery of rhythm in a very different context, look at the spellbinding first casino scene in Bay of Angels, which I discuss below.)
Clearly, Demy is not making a Donen & Kelly pastiche. And throughout the film he goes to pains to emphasize the realness of his locations every space is either authentic or feels that way as well as his cast. Even the showgirls at the cabaret look and act like hoofers doing a job, not prettified extras. The same is true for the equally realistic sailors on leave. So when they and the chorines meet and spontaneously burst into dance to Michel Legrand's wonderful honkytonk melody, all shot as if by a (gifted) news crew the effect is all the more magical, and seemingly authentic, not to mention strange.
That same pleasing, but slightly off, yoking of realistic appearance and movie-fantasy tone can be seen, in varying degrees, in the main characters too, with Lola a prime example. Anouk Aimée brings so much heartbreaking life and even psychological fullness to her role that it is easy to see why some people consider it her greatest performance. She makes Lola simultaneously real and (dare I say) archetypal. And all of the major characters show much more emotional complexity than you would see in a typical, or even a great, musical comedy. This is in no way a put-down of traditional musicals; rather it's an acknowledgment of one of the reasons why Demy's achievement in this film is so exceptional. Besides the moments I've already noted there are others at least as unique, and not all of them are what you might expect. There is the quiet desperation of Madame Desnoyer too-eagerly preparing for Roland as a dinner guest, the moment of blatant sensuality as Cécile wriggles against Frankie in the whirligig at the fair and he doesn't push he away, and the gnawing self-doubts of Roland (which no song in any musical could fix).
This film also offers complex, and moving, male characters, although with actresses as luminous as Anouk Aimée, Jeanne Moreau (Bay of Angels) and Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) the guys are often left out of the discussion of Demy's work. This is unfortunate, since they are fully as integral to their films as the women. In Lola, the strikingly but subtly handsome Marc Michel, as Roland, is every bit the equal of his superb co-star. And he brings a peculiarly masculine form of pathos (in counterpoint to hers) when he recounts his experiences since he last saw Lola fifteen years before. "[I] did a little of everything.... I sold lighters, washers, curling irons, ties, even insurance. I was ambitious. [Now] I'm a perfect failure. I daydream. I'm lost and bored.... I simply lacked courage.... I played [the violin] badly. And the damn war. I was also in love with you." Marc Michel excels at giving Roland genuine depth; in the hands of a lesser actor the part could easily have descended into whiny bathos. The character of Roland (again played by Marc Michel) will make a surprising return entirely sung, no less in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which he is one of the four main characters. (Roland also paves the way for the comparable, yet even more psychologically complex, character of Jean in Bay of Angels).
And although Frankie looks like a cartoon with maybe the blondest hair ever seen and a physique out of a period beefcake magazine his character also has depth and complexity, in the nuanced performance by Alan Scott. (Alan Scott has an uncredited cameo as a sailor in Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, also made in 1961.) Demy and his gifted actors are not afraid to show, and even explore, masculine forms of vulnerability. This is all the more striking in this film without any villains. Demy realizes that people can generate enough conflict from within even if it's romantic self-delusion that he does not need to populate film (not even the smuggling subplot) with heavies. That is yet another aspect of Demy's unique vision.
Another of his major strategies for distancing the film from cheap romantic fantasy can, again, be compared to Ophüls: Demy's carefully interwoven, and overtly contrived, narrative form. Always a writer/director, of his twenty-one films, he authored all except two of his early shorts. And as with Lola, his screenplays were usually original. However, we can see how Ophüls's La Ronde (1950; from Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play) informed this film's fantastical structure. La Ronde darts from one couple to the next always picking up one character from a pair, then putting her or him into a new coupling: A & B, B & C, C & D, on and on until the final scene brings us full circle. In Lola, Demy opens with the mysterious figure of Michel (only at the end do we realize who he is) entering Nantes in his mythic white convertible; at the end he drives off with Lola and their son.
Beyond that overarching circular device, Demy structures his film with so many crisscrossings of characters that it soon comes to feel magical. Within the first moments, Michel almost runs over Frankie. As Michel, sporting his white cowboy hat, tears off, there's a seamless cut to Roland leaping out of bed as if the noise of Michel's car had awakened him. The major characters constantly almost run into each other. And when they do meet as in the fateful case of childhood friends Lola and Roland well, thereby hangs the tale.
This crisscrossing technique, so beautifully handled throughout, also brings to mind the analogous musical form of the fugue. It is perhaps not coincidental that one of the four classical composers used by Demy is the genius of fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach.
As if to emphasize the wonderful artificiality of his story, Demy weaves in other coincidences. First, this tale would not be what it is if Lola hadn't happened to be briefly touring in Nantes's Cabaret El Dorado. Also, Lola was born Cécile, the same name as Madame Desnoyer's daughter whom Frankie mentions is the same age (14) as his sister back in Chicago. Roland tells Cécile that she looks just like Lola at her age; then Cécile chimes in that, like Lola, she wants to "grow up to become a dancer." Also, in an early scene Frankie and his sailor buddies pass by Roland in front of a theatre playing Gary Cooper's lackluster movie, Return to Paradise (1953; directed by Mark Robson); Roland later mentions that he went to see it; and Michel's monologue about his overseas adventures reminds us of the basic plot of that sappy "romance in the tropics." As Michel put it, "I was broke on an island 32,000 miles away, on Matareva in the Pacific. I thought about you constantly." Hmmmmm. Several of the characters mention their abandonment as children, which reminds us of what happened to Lola's son, Yvon. And by the end, all of the major characters have departed, to various points of the compass: Lola, Michel, Yvon, Roland, Frankie, and Madame Desnoyer (with Cécile possibly to follow, to meet her real father); while the secondary characters remain (some might say trapped) in Nantes: Michel's mother Jeanne and her friend, the bar owner Clair.
There are, of course, many more coincidences; and one of the pleasures in re-seeing Lola is finding, and savoring, them for yourself. This is perhaps the most densely-plotted "light" movie I've ever seen. (By contrast, when Demy returns to this same perilously artificial structure six years later, in his splashy Hollywood-style musical comedy The Young Girls of Rochefort, it falls flat; there are too many characters, and none have enough screen time to make a real emotional impact.)
In the hands of a less gifted, and inspired, filmmaker, Lola's screenplay would have come off as gimmicky, a work of cheap sentimentality instead of honest sentiment, of corny contrivances instead of magical coincidences. One reason for Demy's success is that he creates a unique, and strangely satisfying, tension within this hermetic world. It is at once constricting (since there is no exit from the endless correspondences), yet it also feels soothing, even cozy, with its buoyant romanticism. The world of Lola is closed aesthetically yet open emotionally.
Demy has several visual techniques which combine with his lovingly artificial structure to make the film not only effective but genuinely moving in every way much more than a mere "lollipop" romance (critics love comparing Demy's work to candy).
To return to the musical analogy, the major characters are each like a lone note trying to find another with which to strike a satisfying chord. Demy moves through many possible permutations, some are almost right (like Lola and Roland or Lola and Frankie), others impossible (like Roland and the middle-aged widow Madame Desnoyer), others unexpected (like the friendship between Frankie and the infatuated Cécile). But the movement is always towards personal, and mutual, happiness, towards harmony however fleetingly. When Michel makes his presence known in the film's final minutes, it works on two levels. Most obviously, it is the traditional end to what is, on one level, a fairy tale. (Demy was always fascinated with that form of fantasy, from his lifelong interest in the works of Jean Cocteau Demy's second short film was of Cocteau's "Le Bel indifférent" to his own overt fairy tale, Donkey Skin, which starred Cocteau's own 'Beast' and Orpheus, Jean Marais.)
But when Michel sweeps the long-suffering Lola off her feet (literally) at the end after the rosy glow of fulfilled Romance has cooled a bit we can only marvel at the fullness of the situation. First, we may be surprised by Michel's physical appearance. Lola has compared him to the beautifully handsome young sailor, Frankie. But Michel actually looks like Frankie gone to seed rough, paunchy, and more than a bit off. Also, we have to ask ourselves what kind of a person would leave their lover and unborn child to run off to seek their fortune; and then not write for seven years? For me, the film's most heartbreaking moment came when Lola, with complete faith, tells Roland whom she tells he doesn't love about her faith in Michel: "He was sweet.... I think he'll come back. He was so kind. He couldn't bear the idea of haing a child and being unable to take care of him properly." As if we don't already have enough doubts about Michel, when Demy brings Lola (again played by Anouk Aimée) back in The Model Shop (1969), we learn unequivocally that she has been abandoned by Michel... again (and she now works, in a seedy part of Los Angeles, posing for semi-pornographic photos). So much for the longevity of that "fairy-tale ending."
So we have achingly real characters in a delicious confection of a plot (borrowed from American screen musical comedy), shot and edited in a rigorous visual style (Bresson by way of the nascent New Wave). This creates a wonderfully paradoxical effect a harmonious dissonance, if you will which meshes beautifully with Demy's twin goals of being an entertainer, in the grand romantic mold, and a serious artist. It is no wonder that Lola appealed, and continues to appeal, to audiences all over the world, even as it met with the glowing praise of Godard (who named it one of the ten best films of its year), and continues to dazzle critics. Heartfelt and rigorous, it truly has something for everyone.
Demy's next film, Bay of Angels, presents still more facets of Demy's vision in its dynamic story of two gamblers pursing their respective ideas of "happiness" along with some provocative similarities to Lola.
- 16:9 letterbox presented in the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in black & white
- Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
- French with optional English subtitles
- Excerpts from The World of Jacques Demy relating to Lola
1963, France — 79 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
Summary in one line — POSSIBLY ADD category Resources after Review and before Crew & Cast — REMOVE GLBT Cinema link if relevant.
Review — Bay of Angels
Jean Fournier (Claude Mann), a quiet young bank clerk, is introduced to gambling by his suave co-worker Caron (Paul Guers), and soon becomes hooked. Intoxicated by winning large sums, Jean abandons his middle-class life, with his widowed father, and moves to the South of France. There he meets Jackie (Jeanne Moreau Jules and Jim, Diary of a Chambermaid, Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff), a gorgeous middle-aged woman and compulsive gambler. Jean is fascinated by her insolent beauty, and a feeling of complicity soon springs up between them. But there is a problem. Jean is sincerely in love with Jackie, whereas she only keeps him as a "good luck charm." Together, they win and lose vast amounts at the roulette table. As Jean grows frustrated with this chaotic life and of being Jackie's mascot the two come to an emotional showdown.
At the end of Lola, as she and her two men drive off in the white convertible, the camera irises out to a black screen. Here the dark screen irises open onto a similar scene: a road hugging the shore in a port city. Only this is the swanky Riviera, and the camera shows us a tantalizing glimpse of the iconic Jeanne Moreau, even as it speeds away from her. Michel Legrand plays his shimmering, cascading theme under; and as Moreau rapidly recedes in the distance, we are struck by the music's overall falling quality: beauty, loss, and a gnawing sense of mystery. We are in Demy's universe, with its inspired integration of image, movement, and music, but the feeling is already darker than in the previous film.
Demy had already been thinking of the theme of gambling in Lola, when Madame Desnoyers told Roland, "My husband was a gambler. He had a vice. God save us from gamblers." But as Demy remarked in The World of Jacques Demy, with Bay of Angels, "I wanted to lay bear a passion," not just explore the nature of "gambling per se." He succeeds, in many ways, at doing both, even as he creates another visually and dramatically compelling work.
In his first film, Demy gave us a half-dozen major characters; here he focuses relentlessly on just two: Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) and Jackie Demaistre (Jeanne Moreau). Male and female, black suits and white dresses, short dark hair and a blond bouffant, young and older, naive and jaded, lithe innocence and well-worn beauty they are seeming opposites, in a film of countless pairings of opposites (as we will see in a moment). But we come to realize how much unites, as well as divides, them. On one level, this is a more psychological film than Lola (leaving aside a reductive "dime-store Freud" to borrow a phrase from Orson Welles reading of an Oedipus-complex-besotted Jean finding and bedding the mother he never knew). But on another level, it is just as rich with crosscurrents running between theme, image, and sound as Demy's great previous film.
Jackie Demaistre dominates the film. Her surname holds a key to her character. "Demaistre," as she pointedly notes, "is spelled as all one word." The name is an archaic form of de maitre or 'of the master' implying both her power and powerlessness, as a woman who knows what she wants, yet has had to flee her wealthy husband and "master," Pierre (whom we never see), who strongly disapproves of her gambling addiction.
Jackie's larger-than-life persona fills the film, as if she were looking for a form expansive enough to contain her energy (like, say, the musical). But Bay of Angels actually reflects Jean's perspective, both in its style and in its portrayal of Jackie and her rootless milieu. For that reason, she comes off in equal parts alluring and scary, seductive and repellant. Her well-made-up face is equally glamorous and mask-like, inscrutable.
One of Jackie's primary thematic functions is to express Demy's fascination with mysteries even larger than human nature, such as "The mystery of the numbers. Chance." To add layers of richness to this brief monologue, Demy photographs Jackie in harsh light against a blank wall (with perhaps a nod to Bresson) creating an image which is at once resonantly stark yet witty, reminding us of a mug shot. Jackie continues her speculations: "I've often wondered if God ruled over numbers.... The first time I entered a casino it was as if I'd entered a church.... Money means nothing to me.... Nothing."
Although as a former bank clerk Jean may have been intrigued by her metaphysical speculations about numbers, he is clearly unhappy when she goes on to say, "I don't owe anyone anything. Why deny myself this passion [of gambling]? In whose name? I'm free.... I don't need your love."
But is she "free"? Are numbers "free"? Or is there some determinative force God? fate? we might now add genetics? at work in the real world as there certainly is in Demy's universe (remember the closed structure of Lola's narrative delightful but utterly not-free, the very opposite of "chance")?
When Jean becomes angry, she spits back, "You've no rights over me. None. We're partners in a game, that's all." They reconcile (again), but much later Jackie admits that she hates herself for gambling, that she feels "rotten inside.... I spoil everything."
Jackie wears her volatility on her well-appointed sleeves, but Jean keeps his bottled up, as you would expect from a well-groomed young man who so recently worked in a bank and lived with his widowed middle-class father. But Jean's placid, and cute, surface covers as much passion as Jackie's; and at a climactic moment erupts in violence. Yet Jean is at least as reflective, although rather less philosophical, than Jackie. He realizes why he broke off his engagement: "I got scared. I saw an average life, without any risks or surprises. So I broke it off."
But is the chaotic life of a gambler any kind of alternative? And, by the end of the film, we will ask ourselves if Jean's self-revelations are any more transformative, not to mention lasting, than Jackie's.
If this were a simplistic morality tale, the answer would have had us yawning long ago. But even with his considerable flair for sheer entertainment, Demy is not creating a simple-minded film.
Dramatically, and psychologically, the on-again, off-again relationship of Jean and Jackie holds us spellbound. If Lola is a revisionist musical, then this is Demy's rethinking of another genre, the classic noir thrillers which he also loved. But he makes Bay of Angels more than a mere genre experiment by connecting his characters' emotional dynamic with his stylistic, and deeper thematic, concerns.
We can see this clearly in a pivotal early scene, when Jean lets his office buddy Caron show him the world of gambling ("To win a lot you have to bet a lot"), albeit on the local level at Enghien's "Casino Municipal" (DVD chapter 3, "At the Table"). Caron explains the basics of roulette to Jean, and then they begin to play. What makes this scene so much more than an instructional movie is the several layers which Demy brings to it. Emotionally as a precursor of what is to come with Jackie (whom we just caught a glimpse of, being thrown out of the casino for cheating) the sleek young Caron displays an almost seductive stance towards Jean: "You must try everything in life! Know yourself completely." During Jean's first game, Demy adds great visual interest, rapidly cutting between a two-shot of the men to close-ups of the roulette wheel to close-ups of croupier and various people. The carefully-controlled frenetic momentum of this gaming montage is made even more compelling with Legrand's 'cascading theme.' A brief but exemplary scene, clearly showing Demy's early mastery of filmmaking.
But the central relationship is, of course, between Jean and Jackie. Throughout the course of the film, Demy gradually blurs the sharp contrasts between them, even as he expands his exploration dramatically and stylistically. Demy again worked with his lifelong production and costume designer, Bernard Evein, and for cinematography turned to Jean Rabier, who also did The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Cleo from 5 to 7, and many of Chabrol's films, from Le Beau Serge (1958) to Madame Bovary (1991). Rabier shoots the film in stunning black and white, emphasizing the sensual textures of this lavish but rootless milieu. His work makes a fascinating comparison to Demy's brilliant collaboration with Coutard on Lola.
Jean and Jackie also come to highlight the many other opposites or seeming opposites which abound in the film on every level, from the central game and metaphor of roulette (red and black, odd and even numbers, winning and losing), to the score (with melodies ranging from wistful to dark, as well as the main cascading motif which helps unify the entire film but which by its very nature is divided against itself both lilting and falling ever downwards), to the subtly symbolically-charged spaces (light and dark, interior and exterior, closed and open), to movement within the film (from frenetic roulette montages to placid long shots), and finally to the tone of the film, which veers resonantly between fairy tale and realism. There are many rich, multi-layered tensions the kind which stay with you long after the film has ended.
By the end, Jackie and Jean have to a degree crossed into each other's space: Jackie wearing black and Jean white. Jean has even taken up smoking, despite his refusal of a cigarette offered by Caron in an early scene. The morning after sex with Jackie he lights up (she proffers it wearing a sexy white corset of the same design as the black one worn by Lola in her cabaret act). And what can one say about the foot-long cigarette holder which Jackie sports by the end (other than the fact that is exactly like the one Lola used in her act)? Maybe sometimes a cigarette holder is only that; or maybe not.
In the final sequence, have Jackie and Jean merely revealed, and perhaps even learned to accept, more of who they already were? Or have they grown closer together enough to justify the "miraculous" happy ending? Is it a time of revelations, or a prelude to further disintegration?
I am amazed that many people blithely assume that in the film's final minute, Jackie has an eighth-reel conversion (it's a 79-minute film), realizes the erro of her self-destructive ways, and is ready to head off with Jean to Paris with to a life of emotional stability. Now that's what I call a fantasy.
It could be argued that Demy reveals his perspective on the situation by having Jackie (again dressed in white, as at the beginning) run in front of a long row of angled mirrors distorting her image over and over before she reaches Jean.
And when they do come together, they embrace in darkness, ever farther from the camera which will not let us get close enough to be blinded again by her charms as it pulls away from them. That movement reminds us of the rapid opening tracking shot racing away from Jackie, even as it glides ever farther away from the two (one hesitates to call them a couple).
The final scene of Lola is sweetly ambiguous, but in Bay of Angels it seems ironic, even sinister. So much for a pat happy ending.
- 16:9 letterbox presented in the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- in black & white
- Sound: choice of either Dolby Digital Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
- French with optional English subtitles
- Excerpts from The World of Jacques Demy relating to Bay of Angels
Some Thoughts on Demy's Early Films
Lola is a film of gradations dramatically, psychologically, visually, thematically while Bay of Angels is a work of contrasts. But, as I hope I have suggested in this review, both are more subtle and complex works than they might at first appear.
And both share another extraordinary characteristic, which Demy was also to employ in later films: there are no villains. I mentioned that above in connection with Lola, but it is also true for Bay of Angels. On one level, the absence of such a staple of drama is refreshing. But on another level, it is a reflection of a nuanced view of life, albeit one which is perhaps as magical as it is realistic.
This absence of "heavies" does not seem to be just Demy's pandering to a mass audience which, after all, expects "good guys" and "bad guys" to duke it out, whether physically, verbally, or just emotionally. Rather, this seems to reflect Demy's view of life: Technicolor on the outside (even if shot in black and white, as in this pre-Umbrellas of Cherbourg period), but many, sometimes blurred-together, shades of gray on the inside.
The conflicts are all within his characters, as they struggle with themselves more than with anyone else to reconcile fantasies of love and self-fulfillment with the messy realities of day-to-day life. That's as true for sweetly-yearning Lola and romantic Roland as for Jean and even Jackie. We like Demy's characters, and are drawn to their understandable vulnerabilities and dreams, but we also come to see that ultimately they are each somehow divided against themselves. Talk all you like about the "candy-coated" world of Demy's films, but it always leaves a pungent not necessarily a bitter aftertaste, which stays with you for a long time.
Demy's vision also encompasses a larger social perspective. His unique dramatic, and visual, sense also allows us, as viewers, to question our own assumptions, not only about genres (The Musical Comedy, The Psychological Drama) but about ourselves, and our society whether it's Nantes forty years ago or your hometown today. On the surface Demy could be said to gloss over the most troubling aspects of his themes. We see the showgirls in Lola dancing up a storm with the sailor boys, but don't follow them outside the sequestered walls of the cabaret. (Although it could be argued that Madame Desnoyers is a 'flash forward' of the lucky ones' fate.)
I believe that Demy expects us to bring our own perspective, and knowledge of the "real world," to bear on his films; and that he anticipates a greater fullness, and complexity, from such a shared "collaboration" between himself and us than the carefully-limited situation which he depicts. (One could argue that that is true for all films, but there is a certain quality in these films which make such a "dual perspective" feel more urgent than in, say, Ophüls or Donen & Kelly.) In other words, his films want us to compare our understanding of, say, Lola's precarious life or Jackie's addiction, with our (psychological and sociological) knowledge of those phenomena with the multi-layered entertainments he has created. Demy is no naif, and he expects as much from us as he does from himself. It could even be argued that he expects more from us than he does from his own characters.
After my somewhat highfalutin argument above, it's worth noting again that Lola and Bay of Angels are immensely creative and each, in their own way, wonderfully entertaining. They stay with us, both for their emotional depth and the important nagging questions about fairy tale compared to reality, or glamour to heart which they continue to ask us. Demy's third, and most popular, film that masterpiece of pop-opera, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) continues asking those questions, but with some fascinating new stylistic and thematic strategies.
Reviewed February 6, 2004
* also wrote screenplay (for 19 of his 21 films) "shorts" are in italic, features in bold
- *"Le Sabotier du Val de Loire" (1955)
- *"Le Bel indifférent" (1957)
- "Musée Grévin" (1958)
- "La Mère et l'enfant" (1959)
- *"Ars" (1959)
- *Lola (1961)
- *"La Luxure" segment in Les Sept péchés capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins) (1963)
- *La Baie des anges (Bay of Angels) (1963)
- *Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (1964)
- *Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967)
- *The Model Shop (1969)
- *Peau d'âne (Donkey Skin) (1970)
- *The Pied Piper (The Pied Piper of Hamelin) (1972)
- *L'Événement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la lune (A Slightly Pregnant Man) (1973)
- *Lady Oscar (1980)
- *La Naissance du jour (1980) (TV)
- *Une chambre en ville (A Room in Town) (1982)
- *Louisiana (1984) (TV) (uncredited)
- *Parking (1985)
- *Trois places pour le 26 (Three Places for the 26th) (1988)
- *La Table tournante (1988)
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