Still Reppin’ is a bi-weekly column that looks at films playing the Boston area’s repertory theaters, universities and museums. Movies considered will range from silent-era epics to undistributed millennial-era indies. A guide to the cities screens, written for all local film-watchers — but particularly for those tired of the digitized monotony of the contemporary superhero-sized multiplex cinema.
French cinema of the 1960s produced aesthetes and radicals of all stripes. There was Godard (the political), Truffaut (the man of letters,), Rohmer (the anthropologist), and numerous others, most of them politically plugged-in and aiming to break with the traditions 60 years of prior cinema had established. There was also, however, Jacques Demy. Ostensibly more provincial than the rest, Demy was born in a small French seaport town in 1931, and even set many of his films in that area. His films represented more of a continuation of a tradition than a break, as well; in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and other candy-colored efforts, Demy offered a ’60s update to the Hollywood musicals of the Golden Era. Forget the provincial designation — Demy was the New Wave’s pop star.
Demy directed 13 movies, many of them ignored or critically reviled. Yet recent exuberant appreciation has brought an audience to Demy films that never even opened stateside (something that’ll continue at the Harvard Film Archive during the coming month, as they present a complete retrospective of his work.) His widow and contemporary Agnes Varda, for instance, has done extensive work repairing and restoring both Demy’s reputation, as well as the films themselves, often as a consultant on aspects of their preservation and presentation. She’s even directed three full-length films that serve as tributes to Demy’s art and life: The Young Girls at 25, Jacquot de Nantes, and The Universe of Jacques Demy. And the title of that last one is no exaggeration. In his films, Demy created nothing less than his own world.
His first film, Lola, sees its title character weather the alternating affections of suitors Roland (who loves her,) Michel (who Lola loves,) and Frankie (an American soldier.) The Young Girls of Rochefort brings with it the revelation that Lola has died. In a later movie, we find that Michel had left her for a woman named Jacqueline — the lead character in Demy’s second film, Bay of Angels. (Are you keeping up?) We also learn that Frankie died in the military, just days before his service would’ve been completed. And in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, we saw Roland find himself a new beau. In truth, with all three suitors gone, Lola left her kid and jetted off to the States, where she was left to sell herself in a “model shop,” the subject of Demy’s fifth picture. Tragedy always lurks in the wings of his work — sometimes, it even takes four or five movies for it to catch up.
Model Shop, though, can hardly be called a sequel. As is usual with Demy’s recurring characters, Lola’s return is placed in the background of someone else’s story: The main character here is Gary Lockwood’s George Matthews, a disaffected everyman stumbling through the haze of 1969 Los Angeles, trying hard not to get his car repossessed, and yearning harder that his draft number doesn’t come up. Demy’s film presents a day or so of Matthews’ life, paying close attention to the elements of alternative culture that drift in and out; a sequence at an alternative paper teems with little design details (the wallpaper littered with tacked-on articles and photography), as does another where George visits a local band (psychedelic rockers Spirit, who also provide the soundtrack) in search of a $100 loan. A huge portion of the film is spent on shots of George’s car traveling the roads, oil rigs and empty spaces passing him by, the sun rising and setting beyond him. Demy went to Los Angeles, but not for the glitz.
It’s usually the fantastical that marks Demy. Umbrellas, his best known film, is the rare cine-opera: Every single line of dialogue is sung. And Rochefort, his other canonical effort, is a singing-and-dancing musical, with Gene Kelly in a supporting role to boot. One has to presume — rightly or wrongly – that after the pleasures of Umbrellas and Rochefort, the American studio brought Demy in to inject some Old Hollywood magic into counterculture narratives. Yet Model Shop is more easily comparable to Demy’s first two films: Lola and Bay of Angels, both melancholic black-and-white efforts buoyed by lyrical scores.
Shunning Demy’s preference for invigorating artificiality, this picture is paced like a stoner’s drawl — there’s hardly a plot here, so much as there’s just a particularly eventful series of happenings. A telling way to illustrate how different this is from the rest of Demy’s work is in the blocking: In films from Lola on, Demy characters sweep across the floor, into the embrace of their loves, as if gliding, in scene-after-scene, as if transcending their limiting surroundings. In Model Shop, though, everyone just scoops around shuffle-stepping, their heads peering not at one another, but at the floor.
Demy regularly used his entertainments to engage with pressing tragedies — the Algerian War in Umbrellas, a worker’s strike in A Room in Town — but where most of his pictures stay defiantly cheerful in the face of tragedy, Model Shop gives into the dirge. It reminds us that it’s not pacing, tone, or color scheme that truly unites Demy’s work, but rather worldview: That life is full of phantasmagorical pleasures – in this case, Matthews’ all-too-brief run-in’s with Lola — and that all of them will inevitably be crushed before us, whether in the name of war, work, or anything else. Umbrellas and Rochefort, the entries into the canon, saw Demy playing around in the mode of Hollywood — but the grand, idiosyncratic Model Shop saw Demy come to Hollywood, and give it a mode all his own.