Unlike many of his French New Wave counterparts, Jacques Demy did not enter into filmmaking by way of film criticism. His initiation into cinema was more directly pro-active, with early experience working on a series of animated and live-action shorts. Perhaps because of this less analytically-absorbed approach, Demy’s films do not often convey the hallmarks of Nouvelle Vague aesthetic dissection. Save for the all-singing conversations of a film like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which arguably has its genesis more in opera than the movies, Demy did not seek to overtly question and agitate the nature of the medium, as would, say, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette. Still, Demy, as much as any of these other directors, did tap into the spirit of the New Wave through the channels of its sprightly abandon, its tangible transience and its fatalistic view of love.
In Lola, Demy’s 1961 feature debut, there are few of the formal trappings associated with the famous French film movement, but there is Roland Cassard, played by Marc Michel, a young man who embodies the free-spirited, cognizant New Wave youth. Roland says he is habitually late for work because he values his freedom (he also loses track of time because he’s reading a book — he’s a French New Wave character, of course he’s reading a book), and in this justification, he transparently affirms a key trope of this film and others like it. Roland is an idealistic daydreamer who faces the bittersweet perils of disillusionment, and becomes only too aware of the consequences that result from jumping on a whim. Through camera movement and staging in Lola, Demy likewise expresses the push-pull philosophy of individuals like Roland, those who idle their days dreaming of escape — from their supposedly stolid lives of triviality and their uninspiring hometowns (in this case, the port city of Nantes) — but are kept in check by emotional misdirection and a lack of genuine ambition. Like his characters, Demy’s camera in Lola moves everywhere but goes nowhere; it’s a paradoxically headlong hesitation.
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Amplifying Roland’s condition is a chance encounter with former flame Lola, the stage name of Cécile, a cabaret dancer played by Anouk Aimée (who quickly surpasses Michel as the star attraction of the film). Their reunion is instantly cordial and positive, and eventually it yields the realization that Roland has harbored an unrequited love for Lola since their teenage years. She, however, though friendly with Roland, is consumed by the memory of her previous lover, Michel, who abandoned her and their then-infant son seven years earlier. As Roland is enthused by the potentially prosperous rekindling, Lola holds out hope that Michel will come back. Such lingering quixotic optimism is a further New Wave motif, and it is one that recurs throughout Demy’s work in particular (his masterpiece, 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, is all about waiting).
Having appeared in a number of films to this point, most famously a turn in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Aimée was just 29 when Lola was released, yet she conveys a patently more adult sensibility than Michel (then age 32). It is a breakthrough performance by Aimée, and she considered the role “a marvelous gift” from Demy. There’s no doubt her Lola has times of frivolity, and one could certainly question her parenting skills — being a mother may in fact have something to do with her maturity — but compared to the mopey, moody, hopelessly impractical Roland, she exudes a seasoned confidence. She is a strong woman, controlled, careful but courageous, in many ways foreshadowing Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) and Anna Karina’s Nana in Godard’s My Life to Live (1962). When Roland receives a dubious job offer that involves extensive travel, the ominous exchange of suitcases and falsified passports (it’s revealed to be diamond smuggling), one is sure that a good-natured innocent like Roland would be in over his head. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Lola ever getting duped into a deal so shady.
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Revolving around these two like orbiting planets that routinely enter into their social plane are Jeanne (Margo Lion, the mother of Michel, who emerges as a pivotal figure by film’s end but is only glimpsed and discussed in its opening minutes), Michel (Jacques Harden Michel, looking rather like Jean-Pierre Melville, dressed in white and donning a cowboy hat) and Claire (Catherine Lutz, a cafe owner and general confidant). More prominent, and more vital to Lola’s narrative and several of its thematic concepts, are the well-to-do Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette) and her precocious 14-year-old daughter, Cécile (Annie Dupéroux). While the older Madame Desnoyers harbors an obvious crush on the youthful Roland, and Cécile is quite keen on the dashing young man as well, the teen is also fascinated by fellow comic book lover Frankie (Alan Scott), a love-struck American sailor who fancies Lola and also exhibits a purely platonic (if at times dangerously sensual) rapport with the girl.
One specific scene with Cécile and Frankie draws a poignant parallel to the tenuous nostalgic bond between Roland and Lola, AKA the other Cécile (while Nantes contains provincial similarities in names, the resemblances are deliberately illuminating on Demy’s part). Like Demy’s best work, times are happy and sad in Lola, coincidental comedy runs against certain tragedy, and as the drama unfolds in a condensed period of time, the tight-knit group of characters are caught in the flurry of a frenzied, romantic whirlwind. But as the girl and the sailor make their way through an amusement park, where a possibly perverted come-on proves to be a sweetly touching attachment, Demy turns their joyous behavior into a slow-motion ballet. For a brief time, the hasty momentum of Lola halts. Time suddenly stands still. In a film that deals so much with the endangered memories of the past and the fleeting present, this is a blatant instance of Demy impressing upon the viewer a sense of holding on to moments of bliss for as long as possible.
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This short-lived stylistic disruption notwithstanding, Lola is generally less preoccupied by self-conscious cinematic technique. Demy was no less a doting cinephile, though, and the film is no less movie crazy. When asked about his expected dismissal from work, Roland says, in a phrase one imagines any New Wave protagonist uttering, “I got fired, so I went to a movie” (Gary Cooper’s 1953 drama Return to Paradise, to be exact). The name of the film itself was inspired by multiple sources, most significantly Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), in which Marlene Dietrich stars as the burlesque performer “Lola Lola,” and Lola Montès, from 1955 and directed by Max Ophüls, to whom Lola is dedicated and to whose rapturous work Demy’s debut bears a marked resemblance, with its entwined relationships and its hapless affairs. Additionally, growing out of Lola, in a sort of Demy-verse, Roland/Marc Michel later appears in the director’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, falling into a similar amorous situation, while Lola herself pops up in Demy’s highly underrated Model Shop (1969), again discarded by Michel, thus resurrecting the notion of romantic impermanence.
Whatever Demy’s originating line to cinema, and however much it may have deviated from the Cahiers du cinéma crew and their own diverse methods, Lola is unmistakably a work of the French New Wave, in the aforementioned thematic refrains and in the pervasive presence of the movement’s trademark images and sounds. Shot with more of a candid spontaneity than much of Demy’s later work, which suits the impulsive nature of its characters and the bustle of its seaside community, Lola is also ideally suited for cinematographer par excellence Raoul Coutard. Here, his daring use of light and shadow is especially noteworthy, as when he and Demy retain the blindingly uncorrected blow — out that emanates from windows, for example. The difference is that with Lola, the maneuvers are smooth, a sign of mobile things to come as far as Demy is concerned, but far less jerky than Coutard’s distinctively fitful work on a film like Breathless (1960). These arrangements also often settle into precise compositions, giving a clear, almost classical picture of the assorted personalities and their variable interactions within defining spaces.
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Demy embarked upon Lola with Georges de Beauregard, a prolific producer who was particularly well-known for his work with Godard, from Breathless through Made in U.S.A. (1966). And like those films for which he would later be more widely recognized, Demy’s feature-length unveiling was supposed to be a musical in his soon-to-be lauded style, but budgetary restraints caused him to scale back and tone down the production. There is still the music of Michel Legrand, but there is no lush color, no elaborate dance number, no sung dialogue and only one song in the film, period (Lola’s title tune, written by Demy’s wife, the similarly gifted Agnès Varda). But there exists that same Demy passion and that same Demy enthusiasm. To think, he was just getting started.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.