- Ravi Swami
"Model Shop", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1969.
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
As a flashback to earlier in lockdown, I'm re-visiting films that featured as a passing mention in previous blog posts and on reflection deserve a more detailed look because they were first-time discoveries and otherwise quite difficult to find, outside of buying DVD's or BluRays.
Jacques Demy's "Model Shop" (1969) is a part of his unique continuation of storylines of characters from his earliest films, in this case that of "Lola" from the film "Lola", and likewise, Anouk Aimee reappears as the character, now transposed to late 60's Los Angeles.
The film was the result of the success in America of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and where Demy and his wife Agnes Varda, with their young daughter in tow, were invited to Hollywood to hopefully bring their magic to U.S, and the promise of a wider audience like many of the French New Wave directors, with the notable exception of Jean Luc Godard.
In many ways the film failed to make the hoped for impact, possibly as a result of the subject matter which revolves around the seamy world of photographic clubs that were usually a cover for soft-core pornography and where the patrons were amateur photographers using the clubs to evade laws around prostitution, and presents a view of America that audiences of the time may have been uncomfortable with, besides which, possibly for budgetary reasons, Demy opts for a neo-realist style that may have disappointed viewers hoping for another upbeat musical along the lines of "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort".
Demy sets his film in the coastal town of Santa Monica, referring back to his earlier films set in similar locations in provincial France, then, as now, a town with a Bohemian reputation that attracted artists and Californian "Body Culture" followers, and opens in the low-rent apartment on the edge of town of "George Matthews", a young architect, played by Gary Lockwood, then fresh off his stint on Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey", and his girlfriend "Gloria" (Alexandra Hay), who is showing signs of dissatisfaction over his inability to find a decent paying job that will promise a better future for the couple.
George develops a fascination for an enigmatic well-dressed Frenchwoman driving an open-topped Cadillac who he encounters at a car park and follows her, first to a grand house up in the hills that border L.A and then to a photographic club on Santa Monica Boulevard, a location that in the late 60's is mostly run-down and not the flashy tourist trap that it is now.
He is struck by the incongruity of the two locations and decides to investigate further by joining the club, driven more by overwhelming curiosity of the woman than anything else, and when offered a selection of subjects to photograph, chooses "Lola" over the other women on offer.
At its heart, "Model Shop" is a story of a hopeless love affair, here, between Lockwood's "Matthews" and Anouk Aimee's "Lola", as his visits to the photographic club develop into an opportunity to find out more about her and how she ended up living this strange double life, and after spending a single night with Lola she announces that she has decided to return to Paris to be with her son.
If you know anything about Demy's previous work these details will already have been sketched out, which reinforces the connectedness of his early films all the way from "Lola" through to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort", with "Model Shop" bringing to a conclusion the story arc of Lola from his very first film.
By the film's conclusion, George's girlfriend Gloria has left him for someone more well-appointed and Lola has left for France, but leaves behind a small possibility of remaining in contact with George in the form of an address in Paris.
Demy's early films can be defined as being about essentially banal situations that could happen anywhere and at any time - people fall in love and things go wrong - and despite this banality they have an epic, timeless quality, frequently reinforced by the sweeping musical scores of his long-time collaborator, Michel Legrand, who by this time, also thanks to the success of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", was a hot property in Hollywood, so much so that unusually he doesn't provide a score to this film, not that the existing score by the American rock band "Spirit" is detrimental to the film in any way, and it in fact seems very appropriate both to the period and location of the film.
Besides the connectedness to his other films, the other joy of this film is the cinematography of West L.A and the environs of a Santa Monica that has changed beyond all recognition since the late 60's, mostly in the sense that cars were less prevalent on the towns' wide boulevards and the ambience of much of the town at that time was that of a rather neglected L.A coastal backwater - almost "another country" as described once by a friend who worked in downtown Los Angeles but lived in the swankier up-market Malibu.
The other interesting detail, is that Demy's first choice for the role of George Matthews was a young Harrison Ford, to the extent that Demy shot test footage of him in the role, something that was shot down by the studio that produced the film in favour of the by then more bankable Gary Lockwood, Ford being relatively unknown to audiences at the time.
However, Gary Lockwood is excellent in the role and offers a dimension of his acting range that was not often on display in other films and he provides a perfect balance to Anouk Aimee who, arguably, really carries the film.
"Model Shop", Dir: Jacques Demy, 1969