Model Shop (1969)

Model_Shop_FilmPoster.jpegAt face value, Model Shop is an ordinary film of little consequence but look a little deeper and it’s actually a fascinating portrait of the L.A. milieu in 1969. Part of that is due to the man behind it all.

Jacques Demy is among the foremost of French directors, most obviously for his work in musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. And Model Shop, his first American production, functions in some capacity as a type musical (featuring a score from SoCal rock band Spirit), while also incorporating Anouk Aimee’s character from his earlier success Lola (1961).

It’s a musical in the way that American Graffiti is a musical except its soundtrack is a mixture of Spirit and classical music in equal measures emanating from car radios. But it also maintains Demy’s type of storytelling where he weaves characters together with acts of fate.

The film follows a typical day in the life of Gary Lockwood who is an architecture grad floundering in a general malaise as he lives in a shack with his girlfriend who is making a go of becoming an actress. He’s not ready for a long-term commitment and the fact that his car is about to be impounded pretty much sums up his life.

On a whim, he follows a beautiful woman up into the hills by car and nothing happens right away, although he is taken by the panoramic views of Los Angeles. The sequences that follow develop L.A. into a character on its own. One moment George stops for a girl who quickly rolls a joint and offers him one as KRLA hums over the radio waves, in another, he is making his way down the Sunset Strip. There’s a substantial cameo from Spirit keyboardist Jay Ferguson, who genially gives George a helping hand while trading a bit of small talk. It’s might seem a rather odd inclusion and yet from Demy’s point of view, this group evokes something of the L.A. ethos. It’s understandable.

The biggest reveal comes midway through the film when George learns he’s been drafted to go fight in Vietnam. It’s a bitter twist of fate that shakes up his existence in only a matter of minutes. His freedom has instantly been constrained to a matter of days. That’s all the time he has to get to know this mysterious woman who he professes love to. These are the last moments he will see his girlfriend as their relationship subsequently goes down the tube.

So in some ways, Model Shop shares a bit of Demy’s earlier sensibilities but it by no means feels like he’s trying to transport his style flatly to an American audience. If I didn’t know any better, initially, I would say that this was a purely American production because it feels relevant and realistic to the degree that it can be. Except as he always does Demy is making a sort of fantasy, even if we don’t realize it at first. There’s the reverence of an outsider, someone who sees this City of Angels for its beauty and utopian qualities, while others have begun taking it for granted, seeing only the smog and the violence. That’s what Demy lends to this story, a hint of admiration. And in the moments the dialogue gets more introspective it hardly feels stale but really evokes a candidness.

It strikes me that George is mesmerized by the French woman, although his own girlfriend is very pretty. In my own mind, for me, it becomes a sort of an allegory for European versus Hollywood cinema. One perhaps is more glamorous, namely Hollywood, but other countries oftentimes have far more intriguing films. However, it’s important to note that Demy seems to have an appreciation for both. He more than some had a deep admiration for the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age especially.

Another fascinating caveat about this unassuming film is the fact that it could have featured a performance from a young unknown named Harrison Ford. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? But in the studio’s infinite wisdom they assumed Lockwood would be a bigger box office draw. It’s probably because he was in a little film called 2001 A Space Odyssey the year prior. For what it’s worth, Demy’s film didn’t do so well and it still resides in relative obscurity. However, it gives an image of Los Angeles that is rather like a time capsule, starkly different than Demy’s other work and still beautifully tied together with his previous films through a photo album showcasing faces that are very familiar. It’s a striking callback and in some strange way, it connects the director’s work together in a surprisingly satisfying way. Jacques Demy is still worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Love Me Tonight (1932)

lovemeto1This is unequivocally the age of sound! That’s what this film proclaims from the rooftops with its symphony of syncopation as the world of Paris awakens from its slumber. Its opening rhythms are pure ingenuity and the glorious unfoldings never cease for the rest of the cheery production.

In its efforts to tip a hat to Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian’s film manages to eclipse him or rather make a name for itself completely removed from the previous Maurice Chevalier musicals. In fact, Love Me Tonight feels like the obvious precursor to later classics like An American in Paris and the works of Jacques Demy. Whereas Lubitsch’s films almost always function as a comedy and social commentary, Love Me Tonight is first and foremost a musical and it rides on its melodies even while simultaneously driving forward its plot line.

When our humble but nevertheless jovial tailor winds up chasing after one of his notorious spendthrift customers to his relative’s aristocratic residence, things are in motion. Maurice is certainly out of his element, but his charm wins him many an admirer in the household including the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith) and his man-hungry niece (Myrna Loy). In fact, there are only two people who seem wary of this new arrival, the Duke’s skeptical daughter, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and her feeble suitor.

Everybody else persuades The Baron — as he is called — to stay because his is such a magnetic and disarming personality. Of course, when the real news about him gets out following an incriminating wager for his honor, it dooms his romance. But every story needs a final epiphany of realization and, in this case, Princess Jeanette comes to her senses. She throws the utter absurdity of family rank and status out the window.

True, this is a love story, but while that could be the focal point there are wonderful sequences that fill all the nooks and crannies. Fine gentlemen walking around a tailor’s shop without their pants on or a trio of aunts who come right out of the pages of Hamlet. As a Pre-Code film, it certainly has a few risque moments including a Doctor’s visit and one or two mentions of a nymphomaniac — all played for comedic effect of course.

Meanwhile, tunes like “How are you?” and “Isn’t it Romantic” literally takes the country by storm manifesting themselves in all forms imaginable. “Mimi” is a particularly saucy number that pays homage to our main female heroine and it’s opening refrains boast some wonderful point of view shots of our fated lovers. Love Me Tonight winds up being an operetta of repeatedly and ingeniously inventive rhyme and melody all the way through. It also has brilliant sound design from head to toe.

Maurice Chevalier is as charming as ever, still melding his song with a magnetism that flows right into his role, ironically enough, as a character named Maurice. Although Myrna Loy might have become a bigger name arguably, this is Jeanette MacDonald’s film and she plays her part with the necessary aloofness that nevertheless gives way to amorousness. By the end, we like them both and we can’t help but be won over by their songs. For being lesser known on the generally accepted spectrum of classic musicals, this one is a gem.

4.5/5 Stars

Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery

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I still maintain Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are my two favorite actresses respectively. That started early on thanks to films like Roman Holiday and Rear Window and quickly blossomed even more following subsequent film viewings. But it’s important to note that both of these actresses came out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Both actresses were English language stars. And both are, sadly, no longer with us.

In all honesty, I cannot quite remember the first time I ever saw Catherine Deneuve, whether it was Belle De Jour, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Repulsion or somewhere else. However, seeing this 19 year old girl, so serenely and quietly beautiful in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, certainly left an impression on me during my own teen years.

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While Jacques Demy’s whimsical operatic love story of fate charmed me, it was Deneuve who was an emblem of this film. The fact that Geneviève was herself wrapped in a glorious love affair that slowly became tragic, only made her more beautiful in her solemnity. Her piercing eyes. The loneliness that dwells deep within her. The tears slowly trickling down her cheeks. It only enhances her eternal grace — seeing her so melancholy and distant.

Also, it probably helped, ironically, that I don’t speak French. It is yet another barrier between me and this character of Geneviève. I cannot fully understand her plight, because I cannot even completely comprehend the language that she speaks, as melodic as it may be. The heart-wrenching melodies of Michel Legrand as well as Umbrella’s vibrant palette of colors are equally evocative. It’s no fluke that Deneuve bursts onto the scene right here. Everything is going for her with Jacques Demy at the epoch of his creative powers.

And the fun of this particular story is that Catherine Deneuve is still with us and still making a good many movies. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of her newer roles after The Last Metro (1980), but I’ll get around to them someday. It was fun to find a star of a bygone era, who did not die 20 years before I was even born and for that Deneuve was a welcomed discovery. She continues to fascinate audiences, not least among them me.

I still am partial to Audrey and Grace, but I would say unequivocally that Catherine Deneuve comes in a close third. How can you not be won over by Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an extraordinary debut from a phenomenal body of work?

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The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

Donkey Skin (1970)

donkeyskin1Donkey Skin takes the unique world of Jacques Demy and steps it up a couple of notches. The story is based off a fairy tale and brims with all the necessary trappings accented by the French director’s own flourishes.

Once again the music is supplied by Michel Legrand and the songs are a mix of playfully fun and sometimes solemn songs that help dictate the path the story takes. As far as the tale itself goes, it revolves around a beautiful princess who sends herself into a forced exile wearing a donkey skin. It all sounds rather odd, but she is given the idea from her fairy godmother, in order to keep her father from marrying the princess.

The world is a fanciful array of gaudy fake interiors, blue people, red horses, a treasure-dropping donkey, oddly-masked creatures, a talking parrot, princesses, princes, and some rather alarming potential incest. This is no Disney endeavor by any means and its bright colors often call to mind Hippy culture.

donkeyskin2Into this land, the princess flees covered in her donkey skin and takes on the lowly role of a scullery maid where she is belittled and looked down upon. However, a glum young prince happens upon her in all her beauty and wants nothing more than to marry her. In fact, he plays sick just so he can be with his gorgeous vision. Instead of Cinderella’s slipper, this story deals with a ring which is only to fit the finger of his true love. A whole to do is made out of it with people coming from far and wide. However, the prince already knows who he wishes to wear it, after all, it came in a cake that Donkey Skin baked for him.

In the end, this fairy tale receives the happy denouement that is expected with plenty of riches and love for all. The film used simple but nonetheless mesmerizing special effects that add a touch of magic to this tale. It also gets bookended by some obligatory narration concluding an enchanting fairy story fit for children, mothers, grandmas and anyone else who is willing to partake. Although not as memorable as his earlier musicals, it seems that Donkey Skin sees Jacques Demy at his fully realized creative powers in a way that is uniquely his and fits with many of the trademarks he developed earlier. Furthermore, Catherine Deneuve proved that she is beautiful even wearing a donkey skin hoodie. It’s hard to say no to a movie with her in it, no matter the topic.

3.5/5 Stars

Bay of Angels (1963)

bayof3Bay of Angels is quite different than anything else I have seen by Jacques Demy. Similar to Lola (1961) it is shot in starkly beautiful black and white and it has a kind of love story, but it lacks the music or general whimsy that often characterized Demy’s later works.

This film finds its subject matter in gambling, and it follows one woman’s obsession and another man’s growing interest in roulette. At first, Jean is a rather bored young bank employee, who is coaxed by a colleague bayof2to take up gambling. Initially, he is skeptical, looking down at the pastime as a frivolous waste of time and money, after all, he is a sensible young man. However, he parts with the sensibilities that his father would have for him and instead take a few weeks of vacation to spend some time in the casinos of Nice and Monte Carlo.

Soon he gets bitten by the gambling bug and he’s hooked. He finds an equally enthused companion in Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), who has had a far longer history with roulette. Jean falls for her very quickly and Jackie holds onto him like her good luck charm. Their many days spent in the casinos are constantly fluctuating roller coasters of luck. Once gambler’s fallacy has taken hold it’s hard to kick the habit, and Jackie constantly blows her money. If not at the wheels, it gets spent on fine dining and clothes. She has no restraint when it comes to spending and Jean indulges her willfully. It gets so bad that Jean begins to get as reckless as his companion, and he cannot bear to leave her, although she really does have a problem.

bayof4The formally reserved persona of Jean becomes violent and passionate for Jackie’s affection, but she’s not quite as ready to give it out. The ending felt a bit forced, but yet again Demy delivers a story that is riddled with feelings of love and passion.

It is an interesting observation that his male characters pale in comparison with his female leads ranging from Anouk Aimee, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve. These ladies who are always the object of affection, steal the screen with their mesmerizing performances. In fact, Claude Mann has a rather slumping posture, a glum face, and not particularly good looks. Thus, in contrast, Jeanne Moreau looks like an especially alluring beauty, who seems at home in gaudy gambling houses billowing with smoke or seaside promenades.

Bay of Angels is supposedly the place that brings the pair luck, but the reality is that this film is all about chance. Not fate so much as Demy usually explores, but a topic that is still somewhat similar. It is also a film that makes me never want to play roulette. I do not want the mundane lifestyle of Jean, but I would like to find my excitement somewhere else. I suppose that’s what made Moreau’s character so fascinating because her obsession was so great and yet she simply accepted it and thought little of it. But it drove her life.

We’re partners in a game. Let’s leave it at that.” ~ Jackie

4/5 Stars

Lola (1961)

Lola1961As the debut of Jacques Demy, Lola has some qualities that, for lack of a better term, are very un-Demy. First off, he was a member of the French New Wave period of filmmakers and yet he resigned himself to making mostly musicals, taking inspiration from Hollywood and setting them in his own unique world. He was not concerned with the experimenting or political undertones of many of his peers. However, this is probably the most typical looking of his work and thus a jumping off point for the rest of his career.

Not quite as elegant in camera movements as Max Ophul’s work which received a nod, Lola still has a pleasing sleek visual style representative of the French New Wave. Its silky smooth, black and white cinematography courtesy of Raoul Coutard (Breathless), however, makes the film look more like something from Godard.

Lola is what Demy himself coined “a musical without music,” I suppose because it lacks the signature singing of his later films, but keeps the music and some of the other elements. Demy’s film also has a sense of cinematic realism with characters crossing paths with one another in various coincidental moments. It may be highly unbelievable in its plotting and yet it works within the Demy world of romance and fatalism which he would often revisit later on.

lola3This film follows a cabaret singer named Lola (Anouk Aimee) in a small seaside village called Nantes. She has a young son and a lover who she has long waited for. In the meantime, childhood friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) trudges on with his life without much drive. He is a befriended by a lady and her daughter Cecile at the local bookstore where they strike up a quick friendship. Then, by chance Cassard runs into to Lola, or Cecile as he used to know her when they were children. It’s been many years and although she has been getting together with an American sailor (Alan Scott) named Frankie, she is excited to go out for an evening with Roland. However, in another interesting meeting young Cecile runs into Frankie while buying a comic book and they have some fun together.

lola6In the end, Lola tells Roland that she will never truly love him and they must remain friends. It’s a bitter time for Roland as he decides to leave like he was originally planning. Finally, Michel returns and Lola is reunited with her love. It’s another bittersweet tale of love from the mind of Jacques Demy. Whimsical, poignant, and wistful too. That’s not the last we will see of Roland, though his luck doesn’t get much better (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and  Lola returns too (Model Shop). Now only to go back and watch The Blue Angel (1930) from von Sternberg and Lola (1981) by Fassbinder which both bookend this work by Demy also chronicling a cabaret singer. There’s a lot of history here still to be seen and Jacques Demy is a worthy addition to the lineage even if this is not his best film.

4/5 Stars

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

umbrellas1 It is hard to remember a time when I was so devastatingly sad due to a film, and it does not leave a deep hurt but a more wistful despondency that is far more real. However, that’s enough misery for the time being. Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an exquisitely young Catherine Deneuve, this cinematic opera is a moving musical piece that looks to be conventional and turns out to be quite the opposite. 

The story begins in November of 1957 with a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) who is deeply in love with the beautiful 16-year-old Genevieve (Deneuve). Guy cares a great deal for his godmother Elise who has a caregiver to look after her. Genevieve helps out her mother in running a small umbrellas shop in Cherbourg which allows them to scrape by. They must sell some family heirlooms to a kindly jeweler who is smitten with Genevieve. However, Genevieve and Guy have plans of marriage until Guy learns suddenly that he has been drafted for the war in Algeria. They spend their last hours together, and she vows to wait for his return. 

umbrellas7In the following months, it becomes evident that Genevieve is pregnant, but her mother tells her that Guy has probably forgotten her already. The jeweler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), professes his love for Genevieve and agrees to adopt her unborn child. Thus, partially on the urging of her mother Genevieve accepts his proposal and they are soon married leaving Cherbourg for good. 

Finally, Guy returns from the war and things have changed. He now has a limp and is fed up with his old work at the garage. Furthermore, the Umbrellas shop is sold and Genevieve is wed and gone. Adding insult to injury his godmother soon passes away. With no one else to turn to, he looks to the caretaker Madeleine, and he realizes her love for him. They get married and he turns his life around with her help. 

The years pass, and now during Christmas of 1963, a car pulls into Guy’s new gas station. After many years, the two former lovers come face to face once more. Now they have marriages and children, and their interactions are painfully aloof. They have moved on with their lives and they have moved on from their passionate romance. 

umbrellas13True, their lives have become sensible, but in this opera that Demy has constructed, this conclusion is sad and bittersweet. And yet if this were the only painful moment that would be one thing, but there are so many that touch the heart and move the viewer. When Guy goes off to the army and takes off on the train we can feel the great weight of anguish. More often than not, you can read the sadness on the face of these characters which complement the beautiful ballads they utter. In other words, it’s one thing to recount the plot and quite another to watch the events unfold.

I have to say that I had never seen a film that played out entirely through song, and even in the opening sequence, Demy consciously melds the diverse forms of film and opera. Umbrellas has the vibrancy and color of movies and takes the dramatic story line and songs of opera, to create a unique piece of musical artistry complete with acts and all. Its colors are bright and vibrant–utterly distinct in their composition. Everything from the bikes to the umbrellas and even back alleyways are beautiful. Although there are many magnificent melodies, rather surprisingly there is not one specific song that stands out (Well, maybe the theme), but instead, it plays rather like one continuous song with different sections and overtures that complement while not overshadowing each other.

umbrellas4Demy’s earlier film Lola also gives an interesting insight into the character of Roland Cassard who once again becomes acquainted with a mother and her daughter in a shop. This time around he has accomplished his dream of traveling the world as a diamond merchant, however, Lola is still heavy on his heart. Another thing that is remarkable about the film is the weather which in many ways plays as another character. The varying degrees of rain and snow dictate the mood and shift with the changing seasons. There’s no doubt that Jacques Demy and his collaborator Michel Legrand created something special here that elevates the musical to a heartfelt tragedy of romance. That’s something many men would not be brave enough to do. 


4.5/5 Stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Doreleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical.

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor, who is searching for his ideal lover.

Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they two get their little prodigies ready for the big show.  Delphine is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love while Solange on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American friend.

The dramatic irony sets in, and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist, who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance and in need of some performers, the Carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The next morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris, and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans, and then Yvonne is reunited with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry. She would be united with her love soon enough.

The singing is an integral part of this film, and sometimes there seems to be so much that it gets tiresome. However, the light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like. Demy pays homage to the Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly in his film. The film takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and most of the talking comes out in song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film, and most of the characters are pleasant in this comedic musical of renewed and new found love.

4.5/5 Stars