In 1961 Jacques Demy released his debut feature film, Lola. This was my first time watching Lola, the excuse being that it was just released by The Criterion Collection in their Essential Jacques Demy boxset (my overview of the set here). I’ve already watched it twice this week — once to watch it properly and once again after getting sucked in while merely attempting to get some screenshots — and I am already getting the urge to watch it again. This film takes place only over the course of a couple of days amongst a few characters, yet it is about the supposed power of first love and the vicissitudes of love in general not only across the geography of Nantes but also across the expanse of time.
As I mentioned above, the film takes place in Nantes, a port town on the Loire River, about 30 miles from the Atlantic. People are coming and going constantly, or they’re planning to go, allured by the promise of some additional phase of life.
We begin in the early morning. We don’t know he’s mysterious yet, but a man drives through the empty streets in his white convertible with his white Stetson.
He becomes mysterious as the film goes on and we merely catch glimpses of him, almost behind the scenes. We may guess who he is and why he’s come to Nantes, but rather than give the film a predictable feel this serves to subvert the romances we’re seeing on the screen.
To those romances: the film, as you can see in the still above, is dedicated to Max Ophüls (meaning a minor Ophüls marathon I undertook a few months ago continues to pay off). Several of Ophüls’ films are also about the power of first love (I’m thinking primarily of the near manic power of first love in Letter from an Unknown Woman, that lovely adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s frenetic novella) and the vicissitudes of love (here I’m thinking of both Lola Montès, Ophüls’ final completed film and the clear inspiration for the title and central character in Demy’s Lola, and La Ronde, a film about a large cast of characters going in and out of love in a circle.
Lola combines those features from those films and somehow retains the complex weaving without becoming confusing in the least. There are five central characters with two at the obvious center. The two at the center of this circle (at least from this perspective and on this day) are Roland Cassard (played by Marc Michel, whom we’ll see reprise this role in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Lola (Anouk Aimée, who reprises this role in Model Shop, a film not included in this set).
When we first meet Roland, he’s running late for work — again. Indeed, he’s been at his work for three days on a trial basis, and he’s already been late five times. He calls himself a great failure.
Roland was once ambitious, but these days he is simply bored. He doesn’t really care that, due to his punctuality issues, he’s fired from his job. He doesn’t know what he’ll do next, and he really doesn’t care. He’s consciously letting it waste away.
And then we meet the lively Lola:
Lola is lively, and yet she also realizes that her life has become something she never anticipated, and it is passing by too. Or, is she wasting her life, as some might claim. See, seven years ago her first love, a man named Michel, left her and their son, whom Michel never met. Lola’s optimistic he will return, but this barrier of hope she uses to ward off the rough life she’s living is starting to wear down. She’s able to say, “Isn’t life a beautiful thing?” and mean it, but perhaps she is beginning to have her doubts.
Roland and Lola were once friends, though they haven’t seen each other for years and years. On this day, each mentions the other in a conversation, and by sheer coincidence they run into each other and decide to go out. For his part, Roland suddenly feels a spark of life again, wile Lola begins to realize just how tired she is.
Around the central question of Roland and Lola rotate a cast of characters, including the other three I’d call central. I’ve mentioned Michel, the ghost in the narrative who materializes in conversation and brief glimpses.
There is also the American sailor, Frankie, who met and became infatuated with Lola at the cabaret. Frankie and Lola realize there is little but sex between them, and yet Frankie fosters some hope the fortunes of life might align and his love for Lola will mean more. Lola cares for Frankie, but mainly she likes having him around because he reminds her of Michel.
And then, fifth, is the young girl Cécile, who celebrates her fourteenth birthday in the course of the film. Coincidentally, Lola’s real name is Cécile, and the young Cécile reminds Roland of the young Lola. At first, we may think that Cécile, like a number of secondary characters (mostly older women), will experience her first twinges of love with the older Roland. But in a scene that is both touching and disturbing, we realize she is infatuated with Frankie, who takes her to the fair for her birthday and because he is going away the next day.
This instance of first love — and there is no indication that Frankie feels he’s doing anything more than treating a young girl on her birthday, which is not to say it’s wise — is stylistically filmed. The camera is free-wheeling, focused on the two as the scenery whirls around behind them. We even get a moment of slow motion with Bach’s “Le Clavier bien tempéré” accompanying.
Cécile is in ecstasy, but it cannot last. She and Lola, years apart but so similar, are on opposite sides of first love. The young girl’s life has opened up to dreams, while Lola’s life is “and now this.”
These characters and their narratives roam around one another, each turn giving us a new perspective on love, its potential for happiness and sadness, so closely related in Lola. The side characters do their own turns, and we learn of past rotations. We know more are coming, and we may, as Roland does at times, wonder what it’s all for. He says, “We are alone, and we stay alone.” Yet he follows that up with a statement reflecting his own burgeoning hope: “But what counts is to want something, no matter what it takes. There’s a bit of happiness in simply wanting happiness.”
As Lola says, “Isn’t life a beautiful thing?” Even when it’s not.
The supplements specific to Lola are relatively few.
-½minute compilation of interviews with Anouk Aimée from 1995 to 2012, with one conducted by Agnès Varda, the great filmmaker of the French New Wave and wife of Jacques Demy. Aimee, who worked in a number of important films (not the least of which were Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8½), says she considers her role as Lola to be a gift, as Lola is a big part of her life. I can understand this, as Lola is a great character.
The next interview is from 2008 and is with Varda herself. It’s primarily focused on the origins of Lola’s song, to which Varda wrote the lyrics while composer Michel Legrand (whom we’ll bring up again for his fabulous work in later Demy films) wrote the melody. Interestingly, the melody was not written until after the scene was filmed! It’s fun to hear them discuss how all of this came about and how they worked through it.
Other than a 2012 trailer, the last supplement on the disc that is specific to Lola is a restoration demonstration. Varda explains that the original negative was destroyed and what remained were some pretty bad copies of the film. That the film required extensive restoration still shows in the transfer here. Indeed, there’s been a lot of talk about how this transfer looks — it’s rough at the best of times. The question is this: are the people on this restoration demonstration the heroes or the culprits? Is the sometimes scrubbed, blotchy look their own fault as they tried to, in the words of one, bring the film today’s standards of image and sound? I’ll leave the argument to those who know better, but I will say — and I think it’s evidence in the post above — that the film worked wonders for me.
The boxset also comes with a nice booklet of essays, and the one on Lola is by Ginette Vincendeau, a specialist in French film of the times. It’s illuminating, especially as it explores Lola’s relationship to the French New Wave, both in similarities and differences.
Now, those nice supplements to Lola aside, as nice as they are, the best supplements on this disc are the four early short films by Jacques Demy:
–Les horizons morts (1951). Demy himself stars in this 8-minutes short, his first dramatic film. There he is, young and forlorn, looking at himself in a jagged mirror, as if he’s in Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of the Poet, playing the sad sack. It’s not much more than an experiment in style and lighting, but there are some nice techniques, including an interesting, trembling cut-scene edit accompanied by a scream. All in all, I thought it was well done, if it amounts to nothing much more than a heartbroken man dealing with the desire to end it all. It does play well next to Lola‘s refrain: “It’s great to be alive.”
–Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956). This is it, for my money. Other than the feature film itself, this is the best thing on this disc. More of a documentary short, this 24-minute film follows a Loire Valley shoemaker’s work over a week, and yet it’s a fantastic, touching, chilling, and affirming statement on mortality. We see the old man getting up in the morning, a crucifix hanging starkly on the white wall behind him while his wife sleeps. He goes to help cut down wood he’s going to use to make clogs. Where Les horizons morts is more of a curiosity, Le sabotier du Val de Loire is a compelling short film as we watch an old man wield an axe to turn a rough cut of log into a clog, while we go back and forth from his work to his relationship with his loving wife.
Though brief, it penetrates into their life, their struggles, the day-to-day living, the happiness. When death comes to a neighbor, the old man seems to wonder where his own life has gone. At the same time, he and his wife are tired and worn out, so perhaps death is best — and yet: “It’s great to be alive.” Even if, or maybe especially if, the life has been spent making these:
–Ars (1959). This 17-minute film is also similar to a documentary. Here we examine the life of Jean-Marie Baptiste, a nineteenth-century pastor in the village of Ars. Apparently, the film is based on his writings, while the film image takes us around Ars of today (well, 1959). While not nearly as compelling as the prior film, it’s still interesting to see Demy’s approach to his film subjects. Here he also pays tribute to the way someone passes a life. For example, while showing us the confessional, the narrator says Baptiste spent 10 to 12 hours per day for 30 years in this confessional. Baptiste’s life isn’t always presented as some romantic notion of the life well lived, though. Indeed, he was a strict pastor who often castigated his parishioners, and they tire of his severity. Filled with doubts, Baptiste feels someone else could do better and fights the desire to flee.
–La luxure (1962). This 15-minute short is actually part of a longer omnibus work with other directors called The Seven Deadly Sins. Demy’s subject is lust. It starts with a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) walking down a street in Nantes, eying all of the women as they walk past him. He runs into a painter friend who buys a book on Bosch. The short is filled with French puns and wordplay (including throwing in Demy’s name), making it quite a bit of fun. There’s a flashback to youth as a young boy, fascinated by these new mysteries, first tries to understand what lechery is: Lechery is a capital sin because it’s like luxury, which is money, or capital, so lechery is a capital sin — something to do with money. In a dictionary he finds it’s defined as someone who “abandons himself to the pleasures of the flesh,” flesh means meat . . . so, the butcher: yes, the butcher abandons himself to the pleasures of the flesh.
So, this is the first film and disc in the set, and I couldn’t be more pleased, despite the fact the transfer is not as good as we’ve come to hope.