Bay of Angels: Walking on Sand

On Film / Essays — Jul 22, 2014

The soul of every movie by Jacques Demy is a woman. In his first feature, Lola (1961), it was black-haired, sad-eyed Anouk Aimée; in his third, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), it was Catherine Deneuve, blonde, shy, and hopeful. In between, and for the only time in the filmmaker’s work, it was Jeanne Moreau. As the heroine of Demy’s extraordinary second feature, Bay of Angels (1963), Moreau sports a platinum do with darkish roots, and the emotions of her character, a compulsive gambler named Jacqueline Demaistre, swing wildly, from joy to gloom and back again with every turn of luck. Jackie (as she likes to be called) isn’t a deep woman, or an especially complex one, but her presence at the center of Bay of Angels somehow deepens and complicates the viewer’s relationship to the film, which might otherwise seem a grim and sorry tale of hopeless folly. She’s light and dark, glorious and abject, a charismatic mess of contradictions— which is to say that she is the soul not only of Bay of Angels but of Jacques Demy’s entire body of work.

Bay of Angels takes place, as Demy’s movies always do, in a kind of Wonderland, where the rules of ordinary life seem to have been suspended for a while. (And like Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, the setting is near water, in port towns, where everything feels provisional, a stop on the way to somewhere else.) The hero, a Parisian bank clerk named Jean Fournier (Claude Mann), properly bored with his day-to-day routine, reluctantly tags along with a friend to a Belgian casino and, to his surprise and (mixed) delight, wins a nice wad of cash at roulette. Cautious but clearly hooked, he takes himself off to the gambling palaces of the Riviera, where he meets mad Jackie, and down the rabbit hole he goes. On their first night out together, after winning big at a casino in Nice, Jean looks a little dazed as he takes in his sudden new world: the swanky restaurant, the well-heeled couples dancing under the stars, the music, the cocktails, the radiant woman at his table. With a blissful grin on his face, he tells Jackie, “I didn’t think such a lifestyle existed anymore . . . Except in the movies or certain American novels,” and the camera pulls back to show Jackie in profile in the foreground, smiling indulgently, like someone who’s always known better.

She is, it turns out, the ex-wife of a rich man, cast off because she loved gambling more than she loved him. There’s something not quite real about her, a willful artifice betrayed by the Marilyn Monroe hair, the Jackie Kennedy outfits, the long cigarette holder she sports when she’s in the money. The character’s affectations are so marked that even an observer as astute as Manny Farber could mistake Moreau’s flamboyance here for bad acting. “Moreau, for example, in Bay of Angels,” he wrote, “piles herself with outsized boas, eyelashes, cigarette lighters, corsets, wigs. This is supposed to prove that she’s psychologically doomed.” But nothing about Moreau’s performance, from her confident gestures right down to her wardrobe and makeup, suggests that she believes the character is “doomed,” psychologically or otherwise. Jackie’s appearance—accessories and all—is who she is, and she’s entirely comfortable with it, win or lose. Moreau understands perfectly well that Jackie’s construction of hersel is a survival technique, and a form of bravery. This is a woman who walks on the sand in high heels. Farber, like Jackie’s absent husband and the bewildered Jean, doesn’t know what to make of her. Is she a tragic heroine like Nicole Diver (the “certain American novels” she seems to belong in must be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s), a cunning femme fatale, or just a vain, shallow flirt? She’s all of them.

And it’s a good thing there are so many of her, because Bay of Angels is not otherwise rich in characters. The film is the story of a folie à deux, and Demy sticks close to his obsessed couple; he’s no more interested in other people than Jean and Jackie are. Although we often see them in crowds, in the casinos and on the beaches, there always seems to be a sort of hush around the lovers, as if they were in their own space, enclosed in glass. They only have eyes for each other, and for the spinning roulette wheel, which is what has brought them together. “The mystery of numbers and chance,” says Jackie, by way of explaining her fascination with gambling, and you can see it in her rapt gaze when she’s watching the ball clatter around inside the wheel, searching for a slot to settle in. It’s the way she lives her life, landing where chance drops her, and Jean, although warier by nature, for a few days allows himself to live that way too, not knowing whether Jackie is a winning number or a losing one, and deciding to let it ride.

The movie is as light on plot as it is on characters. Once the lovers have had their fateful meeting, they win money and lose it, then win again and lose again; they separate and reunite, then separate and reunite again. Nothing drives the story forward: they’re not on the run from anyone; they’re not planning a heist, as people in casinos so often are in the movies. They have no plans at all—as little sense of anything but the present moment as Paul and Jeanne, the holed-up lovers of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris (which is, in a way, the movie Bay of Angels most closely resembles). The picture’s momentum is poetic rather than novelistic, a matter of repetitions and rhythmic variations, like the insistent Michel Legrand piano music that plays whenever Jean and Jackie are at the roulette table. The gambling scenes are montages cut to a quick tempo, using mostly dissolves, and pass by in a dreamlike blur, the wheel turning, the players betting and watching, the croupiers brisk and impassive. In every other scene, the takes are long and fluid, without many cuts—they have a wandering, leisurely rhythm. The alternation of styles gives the movie a tension that has nothing to do with conventional suspense. In Bay of Angels, as in no other movie about gambling, whether the players win or lose feels fundamentally irrelevant. The experience is all that matters.

Moreau, in her midthirties when this picture was made, was in the late 1950s and early 1960s the movies’ leading female embodiment of Experience. Whether smoldering for Louis Malle in The Lovers (1958), languishing for Michelangelo Antonioni in La notte (1961), or cavorting moodily for François Truffaut in Jules and Jim (1962), she was always able to suggest, in her abrupt gestures and fast flickers of changing expression, that her characters had lived, fully and freely, before the camera ever caught sight of them—and that we would know of their pasts only what they chose to tell us. (Her Jackie in Bay of Angels tells Jean a lie when they first meet, and only later, solemnly and rather grandly, decides that he deserves the truth.) In a sense, Jackie is a flightier version of Jules and Jim’s enigmatic Catherine, and Moreau and Demy play cannily with the audience’s associations. She has Catherine’s flashing smile when she’s enjoying herself and Catherine’s downturned mouth when she’s unhappy, and they alternate with the same electric unpredictability. They’re not the same woman at all—Jackie’s more fatalistic and infinitely less dangerous— but Moreau and Demy don’t mind if it takes us a while to figure that out. Moreau wears the shadow of Catherine like a veil, to be lifted when it pleases her to reveal her true features. Like Demy, she creates suspense in her own way and to her own, very personal, rhythm.

Demy was, like his characters, a dreamer, but he was also a scrupulous craftsman of his dreams. Bay of Angels was his last film in black and white; after he turned to color in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (both pictures were shot by Jean Rabier), his movies were perhaps more readily misunderstood as romantic fantasies, and their remarkable formal elegance less easily appreciated. Demy’s movies are designed, as Jackie is dressed, to the teeth, and for pretty much the same reason: to put the best possible face on their fatalism. Bay of Angels may be his most daring and unlikely feat: a rigorous work of art about people who live on hunches and whims. The characters’ behavior is determined by the impulses of the moment. Time and again, Jean or (especially) Jackie will make a decision and then immediately reverse it, go away and unexpectedly come back, and after a while, this constant to-and-fro becomes, implausibly, the organizing principle of the film; without it, the lovely final scene would seem merely arbitrary. But Demy’s lyrical style, his repetition of themes and motifs like the refrain of a ballad, has prepared us for it: it feels as inevitable as fate itself. When it came to constructing his dreams on film, Jacques Demy didn’t leave much to chance.