I am, it must be said, a huge fan of director Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), with its bittersweet take on French provincial life at a time of colonial unrest. That film shared some of its fictional framework with Demy’s earlier film Lola (1961), which lacked the songs but still had a rich orchestral score by Michel Legrand and an assured performance by Anouk Aimée as a cabaret dancer. Her character returns in this intriguing Stateside film for Demy, every bit as enigmatic as that earlier outing.
Demy was hardly the first European auteur to do a film in the States, and the chief point of comparison for me here is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), which casts a similar wry eye over the smog and ersatz glamour of Los Angeles, not to mention focusing on the student dropouts and hippies colourfully inhabiting the city’s fringes. Model Shop has all these elements, but seems to offer a more self-reflexive take on the artistic soul adrift in an increasingly consumerised world. However, despite the presence of a French character, here the author figure is an American architect, George (Gary Lockwood), who is professionally unhappy and drawn to the mysterious glamour of Europe (which is to say, Aimée’s Lola), only to find the truth is not what it seems.
It’s the film’s title that hints at the locus of these shattered truths — the eponymous shop is a sleazy dive where men photograph women in various states of undress, and it transpires that Lola works there. George is fixated on Lola, stalking her rather creepily (which she acknowledges), and declares love for her impetuously at one point, but it seems more as if he’s desperate for something that’s only illusory — love is packaged and sold, after all, like anything else in this town. The dislocation is caught nicely by the film’s settings — the long, wide traffic-clogged streets with their power lines and advertising signage, or Lockwood’s home at the edge of the airport and next to an oil derrick which makes noise night and day. There’s only one brief mysterious scene where he finds himself outside, up in the Hills at a glamorous mansion, looking out over the whole city; for the most part, this is a film buried in the sleazy depths.
For all its fascinations, there’s still a deeply chauvinist 60s sensibility to its Los Angeles. Lockwood has a bland charm, and the women he meets and lives with seem vapid and blonde, presented in various stylish period outfits (some skimpier than others). The society he frequents is of long-haired (male) artists like the band Spirit (who soundtrack and appear in the film), who may wear the vestments of the counter-cultural but seem to have achieved some commercial cachet. Only Aimée really stands out (though that’s clearly by design) in her elegant white dress and matching car, though we never really get a strong sense of her character beyond the fact that she wants desperately to return to France.
But this isn’t a film made by an outsider wanting to criticise a country and a culture he barely knows. Demy’s alter ego George is filled with love for Los Angeles that he isn’t shy in confessing, and the film’s beautiful cinematography seems to glow under the neon and street signage of the city, traffic-clogged and smog-filled though it is. It may not be perfect, but it’s still an interesting film that seems to get at some idea of what it is to be an outsider, a film made by a master filmmaker about being an exile in a land of movies.
Director Jacques Demy; Writers Demy and Carole Eastman; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 14 October 2013.