Jacques Demy: Bay of Angels

Though a modest production (apparently more modest than Jacques Demy wanted — your time for extravagance is coming, Jacques), Demy’s debut Lola was received with cheers, as well it deserved (my review here). One of its fans was the French actress Jeanne Moreau, perhaps the most acclaimed French actress at the time, having just come off significant films with Louis Malle, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Orson Welles, among others. As Moreau says in one of the few supplements to this film, she was free to be selective on her projects. But rather than seek out roles, she sought out directors. And so much did she admire Lola that she said if Demy had offered her the role of an airline hostess in his new film, she’d have taken it. When she and Demy did work together in Bay of Angels (1963) (the only time they did work together), she played “Jackie,” an independent woman addicted to gambling and freighted with affectations. It’s a great role — indeed, the film, with its circular narrative and insular world, is nothing without it.

Criterion Bay of Angels Cover

I found it strange, then, that when researching the film I encountered quite a bit of backlash against Moreau and her co-star, Claude Mann, who plays the tentative Jean Fournier, a virgin in the world of gambling. In his supplemental essay “Bay of Angels: Walking on the Sand,” Terrence Rafferty points out that even Manny Farber criticized the performance, saying Moreau “piles herself with outsized boas, eyelashes, cigarette lighters, corsets, wigs. This is supposed to prove that she’s psychologically doomed.”

But is she doomed? Perhaps. Perhaps she’s already fallen to the bottom, though, and what we are seeing is the result, a kind of circling around the rings of hell. And there’s the potential for her to rise again, fall again, and so on, forever. There’s also the potential for redemption. In Lola Demy explored the vicissitudes of love and the reverberations across time, and in Bay of Angels Demy continues to explore the ups and downs, though this time of fortune (with a touch of love) in compressed time. Moreau’s performance is fascinating because, despite the flamboyant affectations, what we get is a subdued portrait of a character experiencing the rise and fall, all while trying to keep her emotions from barely registering.

The film opens, like Lola, by establishing the location. We see Moreau briefly at one end of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, on the Bay of Angels. Then, accompanied by Michel Legrand’s loud and strong piano chords — chords we’ll here again and again in this circular film — the camera zooms away, showing us the empty Promenade. This is the emptiness into which Moreau wanders, perhaps early in the morning, with nothing in her hands.

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But we quickly leave Moreau for later. The story begins when we meet the mild-mannered Jean. Jean appears to be an easy-going bank clerk, going about his routine, not making enough money to do much else. But one day a co-worker named Caron has a new car. Jean and Caron (Paul Guers) make the same amount of money, so Jean is naturally curious about how Caron bought the car. He won the money gambling, of course. His luck is up and down, so he’d like it if Jean would come with him, perhaps try his hand, perhaps lending him some luck.

Wary — Jean never fully falls into the world of gambling, though he does feel an attraction — Jean goes. Here is his childish smile the first time he wins at roulette, the game of pure chance the characters in the film are obsessed with.

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Jean’s vacation is coming up. He won enough money to make it something special, so he decides to go to Nice. His sole reason: to gamble. This is against his father’s express wishes. Jean has been living with his father, and he now has no home.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is little passion in Jean’s exchange with his father. Jean is accepting, doesn’t back down, but he doesn’t lash out other than by shutting his door a bit harder than he probably does on average. Really, like Moreau, Mann plays his character’s emotions close to the chest. And, like Moreau, his performance is criticized for it. And yet . . . see that still above, that child-like smile. It’s about as emotional as he’s going to get — other than a later key scene — and I believe Jean’s character is stronger because Mann usually performs as if he’s hiding behind a shield. I’ll get back to this momentarily.

In the meantime, Jean arrives in Nice and sees a familiar face. The white-haired woman he and Caron saw in an earlier scene as she was getting escorted rather bruskly out of another casino. Here she is, playing her last two chips, though we won’t know that until later. No, Jackie is not going to let anyone know she’s only got two chips left, and then she’s stuck in Nice, having already exchanged not only her last franc but also her train ticket, her escape. Now, in order to get away, she has to dive down again.

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She loses her second to last chip, but is intrigued by Jean who plays the same number as she does. When Jean chooses another number for the next round, Jackie asks him why, as if he could possibly have any reason in a game of 36-1 odds. He simply says, “Because.” She is convinced, plays the same number, and they win. Back from the precipice, back in the money.

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The thing is, she’s been to that precipice before and has fallen off it. She’s been through it enough to know that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Life goes on. She has enough connections she’ll never die of starvation, though she’ll burn many bridges.

Well, now that she and Jean have met, the circularity really picks up as they win, lose, win, lose, break up, come together, break up again, come together again. Legrand’s score serves to punctuate the repetition. Jackie claims to love the experience of sailing up and falling down: “What I love about gambling is this idiotic life of luxury and poverty.”

The story, then, is relatively simple. We wonder if they’re going to break away — and maybe they do, maybe they will. Or maybe they won’t. The circularity of the narrative means we don’t know what’s going to happen even when the film ends.

But Bay of Angels isn’t about the story. It isn’t even, I don’t think, about redemption. It’s about those shields the characters have hidden behind. And they hide well, so well we might mistake the subtlety for bad acting. Yes, I guess I’m saying Manny Farber is wrong.

We come to know a few of the reasons these barriers have been erected. Jackie’s husband left her because — and Jackie agrees — she loves gambling more than she loves him. They have a child that Jackie rarely sees. She is an outcast, and she has to believe that fortune will smile on her again. The weight is visible: Moreau’s large eyes are dark in this film, heavy, and they stand out even more when paired with her white dress and white hair (two affectations, by the way, meant to show her faith in fortune.

Yes, she is addicted and has a very real problem with gambling. But here her faith in it, her willingness to throw everything at it for one last chance, is also a nice metaphor for her faith that she’s going to be okay. She has fallen, yes, but she is not doomed.

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The supplements related to Bay of Angels are unfortunately very slim, relative to the other films in the set (my overview of the set here), though they still have their value.

First, we get a 14-minute excerpt from a 1962 episode of the French show Cinépanorama featuring an interview with Jeanne Moreau on the set of Bay of Angels. It was this supplement that helped me see how much the world of the film centers on the two actors, barely letting anyone else in. Moreau talks about her role in this film and her career in general. This is where she says she’s working in the film simply because it’s directed by Jacques Demy, and she loved Lola. Also, seeing Moreau on the set, full of life, and without her heavy eyes, shows just how much acting she’s really doing in Bay of Angels.

Second, we get a new, 10-minute interview with Marie Colmant, co-author of the book Jacques Demy. I found this one particularly insightful as Colmant discusses Demy’s interest if outcasts. She says that while growing up in Nantes Demy had a neighbor, a young girl who got pregnant but was not married. They were friends, but then all of a sudden he never sees her again. Women in general, at that time, were outcasts. Furthermore, Colmant briefly talks about Demy’s own status as an outcast as he was a homosexual. I agree fully with Colmant when she says Demy was interested in people; he loved humanity.

Third and, other than a trailer, last, is another restoration demonstration, running 5 minutes. I say “another” but I don’t want to sound like there’s any exasperation here. I wish all restored films had something on their restorations, as I find this stuff fascinating (they’re doing important work). And here, unlike in Lola, the transfer looks beautiful, so I was thrilled when they went into more detail the process: putting together torn images, balancing color and contrast, and sound.

Another great discovery for me, and now on to the film that had me interested all along: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

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