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DVD Review: Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP (1969)

“No matter when one lives in Hollywood, one brings one’s own mental furniture along.”
     — Otto Friedrich,  journalist / cultural historian

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The final (and rarest) episode of director Jacques Demy’s Lola film trilogy has made its home video debut this month.   Unlike the first two, MODEL SHOP was in English and shot in Southern California.  

1961’s LOLA was the story of Roland and his love for the cabaret ‘entertainer’ Lola in the director’s hometown of Nantes.   Their affair ended when the father of Lola’s illegitimate son arrived back on the scene.  Then in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, Lola was only referred in song by Roland, who by now was a Parisian jewel dealer.  Roland married Catherine Deneuve’s character, Geneviève, fully aware she was pregnant by another man.  Lastly MODEL SHOP picked up the story of Lola, who had come to the US with a lover who later abandoned her.  She’s now working in a rent-a-model storefront near Crescent Heights Boulevard where can’t-get-laid guys dress her up in fetish-wear and photograph her with cameras rented at the front counter.

The movie has been pretty much universally panned, but those slings and arrows were mainly coming from the popular critical viewpoint of judging movies by the standards of 19th Century novels, where narrative thrust and character development are supreme.   But MODEL SHOP isn’t that kind of movie.   Bay Area filmmaker Jon Jost (ALL THE VERMEERS IN NEW YORK) once said that each film is a worldview.   I agree.   Every movie is a statement on how cruel or forgiving the world is, how dangerous it is or isn’t, how available sex is or isn’t, how much Life supports or roadblocks you, etc.  

MODEL SHOP‘s worldview is a worthy one.  An expansive, accessible, mobile world grounded in an urban SoCal landscape painted with a palette of tabby.   Transversing a more-or-less 24 hour period a guy named George (Gary Lockwood from Kubrick’s 2001) catches sight of Lola (as in the first movie, played again by Anouk Aimée), follows her, beds her, loses her.   [According to IMDB, Harrison Ford was the first choice for the male lead but wasn’t considered a bankable actor yet.]   Demy’s love of classic Hollywood is the springboard for the story, as George’s day begins like William Holden’s in SUNSET BOULEVARD with a couple of guys coming to his door to repossess his convertible.   Driving away from the creditors to ask friends for money to pay the repo guys, he sights Lola and follows her in the style of James Stewart tailing Kim Novak in VERTIGO.  

There is a deep love, not only of movies, but of Los Angeles itself in this film.   Both Lola and George speak of the city’s beauty.   (George is an architect and has some lines about the beauty of its grid.)   Lola is first seen swathed in white walking across a pay-by-the-hour asphalt parking lot; yet through Demy’s eyes the image is pure fantastic beauty.   Even the Car Culture becomes poignant as George parks his beside Lola’s and haltingly, earnestly confesses his newfound love for her as they both stay behind the wheel, comfortably domesticated in their drivers’ seats.   As in real American life, Demy understands the anthropomorphism of autos (hers is a milky-white recent Detroit issue, his a vintage MG, both are convertibles) and what they say about their owners, giving volumes of information about the characters — as much information as a volume filled with Proustian detail.

George and Lola are adrift.   He’s shacked up in a loveless arrangement with a longtime girlfriend.   He’s unemployed because he couldn’t stomach his corporate gig.   And he’s draft-age during the bloodiest time of the Vietnam War.   Lola is stranded, working to save the money for a return ticket to France.   She misses her son back home.   Emotionally hurt, she goes through her life with detachment, keeping her romantic wounds close and life at a distance.

In George’s search to raise money to keep his car, he visits musician friends (the classic ‘sixties band Spirit) and the staff of an underground newspaper.   In 1969, I would have found Demy’s representations of alternative, anti-Establishment Americans superficial; but seeing it now, I acknowledge how many small (superficial?) details were captured by him that convey a deep reality of what 1969 was like.   It reminded me of Chris Marker’s text in SANS SOLEIL:   “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.”   The shots from MODEL SHOP curated a velvety lining of the street-level poetics of late-1960s L.A.

The scenes with the band and at the newspaper office were filmed with real musicians and journalists — in other words, non-professional actors — which, combined with the implausible performance of Alexandra Hay as George’s girlfriend, make the non-Lola/George moments sort of hollow.   (Obviously Demy’s command of English was not strong enough to bring out good line delivery from most of the minor players.)   If performances can make or break a film for you, the supporting cast may make you bail.  Also, the interiors between George and his girlfriend were obviously the last scenes filmed, because Lockwood is shirtless (no complaints there) with a glaringly distracting Farmer’s Tan from shooting exteriors in a convertible wearing the same t-shirt for weeks.

As the film concludes, George’s life collapses in entropy like a Robert Smithson artwork:   his girlfriend has split; his car is repossessed; Lola has left for Paris.   He also gets a note from the draft board to report to the Army induction center for processing into the military:   the qualities of his life are erased in a single day.

More than anything else, the film evokes and parallels the dynamics of a married Gay man’s extramarital one-night stand   (Demy died of AIDS yet was married to fellow filmmaker Agnès Varda):  George’s sudden arresting interest in a passer-by, whom he cruises, eventually breaking the ice; his obsession as he realizes the potential for sex; his rush of emotional liberation when he escapes from his regular life and is alone with the one he wants; the consummated act; then the morning-after of diminished reality as the avenues of his emotional life and personal expression quickly and forcefully are blocked, as he finds the exteriors of his life have sealed him up once more.  

Again, as with most Columbia Studios films released by Sony, the new DVD’s extras are minimal.   Fortunately there are English subtitles (Aimée’s English can be hard to understand at times), and the original trailer is a great artifact of how arty films were marketed in the 1960s.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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9 Comments to “DVD Review: Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP (1969)”

  1. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this film. Ever since seeing Beaches of Agnes a few weeks ago, I have been very curious about Demy and Varda in Hollywood. I also like your description of how a love of Los Angeles comes through clearly. A real favorite of mine is the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. I’d love a double feature of that film and this one (and since I’m planning to participate in Broken Projector’s double billathon, this could be it). Thanks again for a great review.

  2. There’s also a great documentary called “L.A., MY HOME TOWN” about the British community in L.A. directed by Beatles-Era rocker Ian Whitcomb.

  3. Marilyn says:

    That would definitely be up my alley – if it’s available. Thanks.

  4. Ian Whitcomb says:

    DVD copies of “LA –My Home Town” are available from me at Box 451 Altadena,CA 91003 for $20, postage paid. This is from an original BBC print held at the UCLA Film Archives. You can also see bits of it on YouTube.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the direct-from-the-source lowdown on getting the film. I’ve long been a fan of yours, so it’s great to receive this comment.

  5. […] October 12 at 4:15 PM ET (TV): MODEL SHOP [Demy/1969] (Turner Classic […]

  6. Ralph Benner says:

    Love Anookie, too, but me thinks you might be partial to Lockwood’s legs, probably the best parts of “2001.”

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