Jacques Demy's Model Shop and the geography of Los Angeles
Like so many films set in Los Angeles since the 1940s, Jacques Demy’s Model Shop is about the geography of the city as much as it is about anything. “It’s a fabulous city. To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me,” says George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), in one of the film’s more contemplative lines of dialogue. It’s repeated in Thom Anderson’s explorative, essayistic film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which likely contributed to the renewed appreciation for Demy’s film. Anderson suggests that Demy “loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can.” He describes the film as “totally incoherent” and incomplete, but continues that, for residents of the city, the film is irrevocably moving. Upon the film’s release, Vincent Canby for the New York Times observed that it “looks and sounds like a film made by a sensitive tourist.”
E. B. White once wrote that New York City contained three cities within itself: that of the person born there, that of the commuter, and that of the person born somewhere else who came to the city on a quest. It is the last that is the most vibrant, defined by the passion of destination. Thinking of Los Angeles, George belongs to this last category, and to some extent so does Demy, although he only lived in California for a few years. They both feel a passion for the exploration of its space. And yet George and Demy (and his character Lola, in a returning role by Anouk Aimée, who yearns to return to France) also experience Los Angeles as a transitory place. Perhaps they try to be settlers, but they are not.
At first, the wooden rhythm of the dialogue is hard to take, and it is a few minutes until Model Shop is a pleasure to experience. These opening moments are reminiscent of Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987); set in outer Los Angeles County, Superstar is bitter towards its characters, and as a result, cannot love where they come from. Thankfully, that same woodenness fades away as Model Shop settles in to itself, and it becomes, as is Demy’s fashion, about the delicate sadness of missed opportunity and lost love, only this time removed from his beloved France. It is one of Demy’s more peculiar films, but its recent restoration is a beautiful tribute to the wanderings of Demy, and the gentle wandering sprawl of Los Angeles in the sixties.
Consistent with another of Demy’s themes, George has “the draft hanging over my head,” which he mentions to explain why he can’t be bothered having a job. So he becomes a wandering flâneur, simply content to drive and walk, in and above Los Angeles. He drives around, listening to Bach, Schumann, and the psychedelic rock of Spirit (whose band members appear in the narrative). There is a particular moment when George turns off the car, his radio silences, and the camera continues to capture other traffic that passes by. Another car passes with same suite by Bach blares from its own radio. He returns to the car, and the Bach suite continues — it has become an accompaniment, a score through the time as George continues to drive through the dusk, and as night falls.
It’s almost as though George goes out of his way to wander, just like that incurable sleuth Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) in The Long Goodbye. This is an easy comparison—almost any film in this era’s Los Angeles will spur some aesthetic memories of Robert Altman’s more iconic film, even though Altman’s film came afterwards. But Demy’s personal enthusiasm for the form is bursting with references to other iconic films. At the photo development shop attended by George, there is a photograph of Spencer Tracy, standing out on a wall of many others. In the newspaper office, George looks closely at a large photograph of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless — repeating Belmondo himself, who once looked closely at a poster of Humphrey Bogart. Later, as George flips through an album of Lola’s photographs in her living room, Catherine Deneuve — who had already starred in two Demy films, and would a third and a fourth — appears on the cover of a magazine on the table.
Los Angeles’ geography, both flat and dynamic, open and claustrophobic, is traced through interior and exterior landscapes. The camera glides through both. But the interior colour palette of the model shop is where Demy’s signature style bleeds through, with hot pink, purple, and red, representing his theatricality, and the rich reds and browns suggesting loss and melancholy. Demy has always ventured into darker tones, both visually and thematically. But draining the model shop of its initial vibrant colour, Demy presents it as the shallow, artificial space it really is, suggesting that it can only put on vibrancy and happiness, but will always lose the sheen. One of the city’s great wordsmiths, Raymond Chandler, wrote in his novella The Little Sister of the stale stench of Los Angeles that repelled him, but conceded, “The colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.” Demy loves the lights, but beneath them he is not interested in the urban stench as such; he is interested in sadness.
The narrative contains a love scene that rivals the one between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), and may join my list of top favourites in film. George, yearning for intimacy with Lola, holds her, traces his hand along her body and breathes longingly that, “the way your shoulder curves, the line of your neck, it’s like pure joy.” Lola returns that he speaks as though he were a novice, only just discovering love. But Demy’s camera truly loves Anouk Aimée, as it had since his debut film Lola (1961). It caresses her face, her hair, her eyes, just as George caresses Lola. Model Shop almost becomes about her.
But it can’t be — and Model Shop is a paean to the city Demy was about to leave. Lola, too, is about to leave, and admits that she loves Los Angeles. George is surprised; “you know, most people hate it,” he tells her. Demy’s work, and his wife Agnès Varda’s three films made while there, first and during a later trip — Lions Love (1969), Murs Murs (1980), and Documenteur (1980) — profiles a kind of Los Angeles that so many of us can only know. This is a chance to see Los Angeles as it was, and as it is now being represented, in the zeitgeist currently targeted by Mad Men and its seventh season — the end of the sixties. Don Draper even watches the film in an episode; alone in a movie theatre, as though he is trying to understand the appeal of the city, but of course it doesn’t seem to help.
The film begins, and ends, with the sounds of industry, oil derricks and birds, as in the beginning, or a towing vehicle and an aeroplane engine at the end. It begins with a couple struggling apart and ends with another couple struggling together. Separation plagues the film. It ends, finally with George saying, “You can try,” over and over again, until fade out. Try what? Try and live, try and love, try and understand Los Angeles? Demy can’t give any answers.
A 4K digital restoration of Model Shop will screen at Melbourne’s ACMI for the weekends of June 7 & 8 and 14 & 15. Visit the ACMI website for more information.