Lola: Demy’s Paradise Found

On Film / Essays — Jul 21, 2014

Jacques Demy has long occupied a singular place within French cinema, primarily as the maker of two enchanted, colorful musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). While for decades his later work was largely ignored, accounts of his early career saw him as both steeped in the world of the French New Wave, in part through his marriage to Agnès Varda, and tangential to it. Despite the reverence shown—by, among others, Jean-Luc Godard—for his first two features, Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963), histories of the movement made brief acknowledgment of his contribution before going on to concentrate on Godard, François Truffaut, et al. Eventually, Varda’s biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) and documentary The World of Jacques Demy (1995), her tireless efforts to restore, promote, and distribute his work, and a spate of books on the director helped change all this.

Seeing Lola today, one wonders why it was not recognized earlier as a central film of the New Wave. It exhibits many of the features that bound those works together in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To start with, it was a small-budget film—much smaller than Demy had hoped—produced by Georges de Beauregard, whose credits also included Godard’s Breathless and Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1960 and 1962, respectively), among others. Also emblematic is the glorious black-and-white widescreen (Franscope) cinematography by Raoul Coutard, which echoes the New Wave ethos in being at once documentary and lyrical and in making the most, aesthetically, of its budgetary limitations—for instance, Demy deliberately left in overexposed shots that look remarkably poetic. Lola was, also typically, shot entirely on location. Although unusual in turning his back on Paris, for Lola Demy approached the elegant city of Nantes, on the Loire estuary, in characteristic New Wave fashion. That is, far from being mere background, the city is a participant in the story, a location redolent with personal memories (it was the city of Demy’s childhood) and cultural landmarks, a reservoir of emotions. As Jean-Marc Ayrault, the city’s mayor, and now former French prime minister, said on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the film in 2011, “Between Jacques Demy and Nantes, it is a true love story.”

Lola’s highly romantic take on love both connects Demy to his peers and sets him apart: his discourse is less playful and more melancholy than those of Godard, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, and, crucially, is also different in its attitude toward women, who, as throughout his works, are both worshipped as distant mother figures and romanticized as whimsical, ethereal creatures. The narrative for Lola weaves together two sets of characters whose paths crisscross amid the city’s streets and iconic locations. Orbiting around the cabaret singer Lola (Anouk Aimée) are her three suitors: the American sailor Frankie (Alan Scott), her equally smitten old friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), and, unbeknownst to her through most of the film, her old flame Michel (Jacques Harden). The mysterious Michel, dressed in white from cowboy hat to toe, is the father of her seven-year-old son, Yvon, and he has returned to Nantes to retrieve woman and child. In a mirror image, the handsome but sad Roland, who says, “I’m the quintessential failure,” is the object of attention—and, subliminally, desire—for several, mostly older, women: café owner Claire and her friend Jeanne, who also happens to be Michel’s mother; the elegant Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette); and Madame Desnoyers’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Cécile (Annie Duperoux). Seemingly randomly but actually in a highly structured way, the characters echo one another across time—Lola used to be called Cécile, Madame Desnoyers used to be a dancer, Frankie reminds Lola of Michel, and so on—and space; they are linked through “chance” encounters, such as those between Cécile and Frankie and Cécile and Roland, and at times follow one another through the city.

If sex is evoked, particularly in the Lola-Frankie couple and the humorous reference to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine in the bookshop scene, Lola is more interested in romantic love and barely hides a deep pessimism on the topic (hence the frequent use of the term bittersweet in describing the film). Lola is above all a reflection on the fragility of love, expressed through the transient nature of each character’s trajectory—almost everyone is on the move, recently arrived, or about to leave. Each happy moment is undercut by a sense of its ephemeral nature: Frankie and Cécile’s blissful time at the fair is followed by their separation, Lola’s being swept away by Michel at the end contains its own demise as she wistfully glances at Roland walking in the other direction. While the other New Wavers tend to situate their lovers very much in the present, Demy places his in the shadow of the past—a theme he continued through Three Seats for the 26th (1988), in which the hero, played by Yves Montand, returns to his home city of Marseille to find a long-abandoned lover and their daughter.

Unlike Godard and Truffaut, Demy did not start his career as a film critic, instead learning his trade by making documentary shorts. In the words of the film writer Jean-Pierre Berthomé, within the Cahiers du cinèma crowd, Demy was a “fellow traveler.” Nevertheless, from the opening credits, Lola proclaims Demy’s deep love of the cinema, in true Cahiers style. A dedication to Max Ophuls points the spectator in the direction of the master, who’d died in 1957 and whose 1955 Lola Montès Demy evidently references in the name of his heroine and in her status as an entertainer. Lola’s circular structure—starting and ending on Michel driving into and then out of Nantes in his white Cadillac—and its complex choreography of amorous couples also recall Ophuls’s La ronde (1950).

There are many other citations, including from Robert Bresson’s 1945 Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, in which a younger Elina Labourdette plays a cabaret dancer, as we see in the picture from that film that Cécile shows Roland, and from Breathless, whose protagonist Michel Poiccard is name-checked. Yet the importance of the cinema in Lola is not limited to a game of quotes. Demy’s vocation stemmed from his childhood love of the cinema, and he wanted Lola to evoke “memories from Nantes, from the time when I was in college and bunked off school to go to the movies.” His hero, and alter ego, Roland Cassard does a grown-up version of this when, after being fired yet again, he goes to the Cinèma Katorza—a landmark that opened in 1920 and is still in operation—to see Return to Paradise, a 1953 movie starring Gary Cooper. The evocatively named American film takes place on an exotic island, where the hero has an adventure and then returns, many years later, to claim the out-of-wedlock daughter he left behind. Thus, as well as a refuge from painful reality, the film functions as a mise en abyme of Lola’s story, and shows the cinema as a source of inspiration and fantasy. “I, too, will leave,” Roland says to himself in the café, while Jeanne later delivers the truth of the episode—“In the movies, it’s always beautiful.” As with Truffaut, for Demy cinema is better than life.

In paying tribute to American genre movies alongside prestigious European auteurs, Demy was in line with his fellow cineastes, who created their own iconoclastic pantheons. Michel as a knight in shining white Cadillac and Stetson hat possibly also pays tribute to the all-things-American-loving French director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose attire of choice this was, but in any case, Michel, like the sailor Frankie, steps out of the cinematic culture of a whole generation of postwar film lovers turned filmmakers. From this conflation of high and low culture—Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as swelling accompaniment for a cowboy in a convertible—American cinema and European stardom, also emerges the beguiling figure of Lola.

The first vision of Lola in the film is literally an image, a photograph pinned up outside the revealingly named Eldorado cabaret, setting the tone for her depiction as at once someone realistically embedded in the city and a fantasy. Lola is associated with two key locations in Nantes, the brasserie La Cigale, where the Eldorado scenes were shot, and the Passage Pommeraye. The former, still famous today, is a sumptuous restaurant opened in 1895, with high ceilings and ornamental tiles on the walls. It functions as a shrine for the troupe of dancers including Lola (we can also spot Corinne Marchand and Dorothée Blanck, who would both appear in Cléo from 5 to 7 the following year). The glamorous decor contributes to the idealization of the place, and thus of the women—we are a long way from a seedy provincial hangout for sailors and prostitutes. Inaugurated in 1843, the Passage Pommeraye is an extraordinary shopping arcade built on three levels around a monumental staircase, ornately embellished with statues, moldings, and cast-iron features. The luminous yet mysterious space has attracted many artists, including the surrealists, and Demy’s decision to film two major encounters between Lola and Roland there reinforces her identity as a captivating muse. Coutard’s camera work skillfully incorporates Lola within the passage’s architecture and artifacts, especially in the long second scene, but the Passage Pommeraye is also where Roland receives the louche assignment he is supposed to carry out for the seedy Valentin, before the latter is dramatically arrested for diamond trafficking. For Roland and the spectator, the passage thus symbolically binds Lola’s sexual and exciting allure with danger.

A woman of many facets, Lola is not reducible to a femme fatale—yet, despite the refrain in her cabaret act, “C’est moi, Lola!” she lacks a coherent subjectivity, and her different identities are constructed by the men around her, especially the timid Roland. As an immature girlfriend (giggling, changing her mind) doubling as a sexual playmate, she resembles a number of other gamine New Wave heroines. Yet Demy’s personal take is visible in the way he also makes her an idealized mother figure, a fascinating and distant creature, who signals, as film historian Geneviève Sellier puts it, “the at once enviable and anxiety-producing place” Roland wants for himself in his relationship with her. Lola’s fantasy identity, embedded in the narrative and mise-en-scène, is also creatively expressed by costume. For much of the film, she is seen in her sexy, cinematically coded black stage outfit, evocative of both Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and its later incarnation in Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne—glimpsed in that picture of the younger Madame Desnoyers. Significantly, she does not change to go home and see her son, but simply covers the outfit with a coat, a poetic visualization of the “mother-whore” dichotomy. On another occasion, she pairs it with Frankie’s sailor top, indicating their more equal relationship as playmates. But when she goes out with Roland, she wears an elegant white dress and jacket, contributing to his initial vision of her as angelic, although a black feather boa around her neck acts as a reminder of her other identity as entertainer.

At the time of the making of Lola, Anouk Aimée already had a substantial career in French cinema and had had a major role in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). Yet Demy had to insist on her for the part of the cabaret artiste. As Aimée (whose name was given to her by the poet Jacques Prévert) put it, “The producers did not find me sexy enough. Despite the success of La dolce vita, I did not fit the [beauty] canons of the time.” Aimée’s charming, almost gauche performance fits the New Wave drive to replace mainstream stars with less polished performers. Part of the motivation was financial, and in the case of Lola, the low budget also meant that all of the sound was postsynchronized, adding to Aimée’s slightly offbeat delivery. But there were strong aesthetic reasons as well for wishing the performers to appear less professional and thus more authentic, and Aimée succeeds in making such a fantastic creature believable.

Tall, slim, dark-haired Lola, in her signature outfit of black lace corset, black tights, black feather boa, and top hat, has now become a Demy and French New Wave icon; in the film, she works as both ideal vision of femininity and pure cinematic creation. We find traces of her in several female/mother figures in Demy’s subsequent works, such as Bay of Angels, and encounter her again, literally, in Model Shop (1969). In that film, made in America, Lola resurfaces in Los Angeles, lonely, abandoned by her husband—confirming the temporary nature of her coupling with Michel—yet still as seductive as in the earlier movie.

Demy can now be seen, in all his complexity, as both a key part of the New Wave and a singular film auteur, with a coherent fictional universe right up through his last feature, Three Seats for the 26th. It is a filmic universe in which melancholy, tragedy, and a hint of hostile social relations are balanced by a fairy-tale atmosphere of poetry, music, and cinephilia. And Lola—anticipating other elegiac portrayals of mesmerizing women, whether in black and white (Bay of Angels) or color (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and prefiguring an oeuvre that consistently pays tribute to both Hollywood cinema (The Young Girls of Rochefort) and fairy tales (Donkey Skin, 1970)—is the matrix of that vision.