Always Try: Jacques Demy's Model Shop
May 16, 2020
Originally published at The New Beverly
“He rushed out and rented a white convertible, and he’d drive around L.A. He’d call and say, ‘It’s a dream here!’” – Agnès Varda on her husband Jacques Demy in Los Angeles
In Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old unemployed architect, drives. It’s 1968 in Los Angeles (1969 when the movie was released), and he drives and drives and drives – the movie loves to watch him drive (and some of us love to watch him drive) – he drives all through the city – at day, at night. He listens to classical music, rock, and the news on his car radio, mostly about the Vietnam War. Sometimes he drives silent, only the traffic sounds and the wind in his ears. Sitting at the wheel of his vintage M.G. convertible (on the verge of being repossessed) he’s both running away from and towards … something. Some injurious future – he would like to avoid what he views as possible soul-crushing employment or even death (the draft is hanging over him) – and he would like to experience something fulfilling and new, exciting – love? Creation? Keep driving.
The driving matches his mental state, which is not aimless exactly (though his live-in aspiring actress girlfriend played by Alexandra Hay would probably disagree – she is not happy with him at the beginning of the film and their relationship, understandably, is falling apart). But all of this driving is maybe more like searching, wondering what the hell is going to happen, and at the end, as he says himself, trying. And so, he drives. And within this movie that occurs in 24 hours of this young man’s life – he seems to be driving through half of it. This driving is his mental state, and this is Los Angeles. He is full of undefined longing. As Joan Didion wrote, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”
You get the feeling George is filled with both – exhilaration in bursts (when the geography of the place inspires him) and an amorphous unease – there are young men and women and bright lights and music and sun all around him, but there’s darkness clinging to every inch of it all. Attraction – a beautiful, dream-like woman in white driving a long white convertible – lulls him out of his torpor. She stands stark and elegant and somewhat a bit out of time and place, but there’s something sad about her – you feel it instantly. Does George as well? You get a sense he does, which makes him more intrigued, more magnetized. George, then, reflects more how Didion continued on her thought: “There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness.”
Yes, there is that. The seductive. The unconnected. But one reason these hours at the wheel of the automobile are so seductive is the yearning to connect the unconnected. There is something about driving in Los Angeles, driving anywhere in the city, that is formless, yet full of stories – stories within nooks and crannies of shuttered movie theaters or old restaurants or old Hollywood haunts and houses and apartments and hopping club venues. Ghosts haunt the city. That can be unsettling and wonderful and sometimes both at the same time.
But also – the others – the passengers and drivers in the other cars: their stories, their stares, and their own loneliness. Some days it seems it’s a city of, mostly, single passenger cars. It’s often a gorgeous, fascinating city. But there are days where it feels – taking in the sunshine and breathing in the air – chemically off – as in your brain chemicals. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly – those certain days that feel strange yet beautiful, light and dark, but listening to L.A.-made music by the band Love (especially 1967’s “Forever Changes”) or the Beach Boys’ 1966’s “Pet Sounds,” sweeps me into that state of haunted beauty, darkness within sunshine, the enigmatic nature of it, the complexity.
And so, the woman in white, almost spectral at first, carries a lot more with her than he (he being George) or the viewer might have anticipated – she has a past. And for anyone familiar with Demy, her presence is deepened by her backstory – here in the movie and here in Demy’s work – which seem to swirl together in a personal, tender reverie. With much of Demy, we feel a bittersweet heartache, connections made by chance and often, love that was not returned and, of course, waiting. Driving is a lot of waiting. Making movies is a lot of waiting too.
And sometimes – making movies – you don’t get the person you yearned for – in this case, it was Harrison Ford instead of Gary Lockwood (I think Lockwood is really good here). Columbia didn’t see it and felt Lockwood (after his role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001), was more suitable. The movie didn’t do well regardless – and has become either a curio or something of a cult film for either Demy-philes, or those simply intrigued by taking in late 1960s Los Angeles – because you see so much of it, you feel its vibe, and you wish a lot of it was still around. But how different this movie might have been received or regarded with Ford? And what to think of Demy’s possible career in Hollywood? Or Ford’s alternate one? One might assume it would have been different. And would Demy have made his superb Donkey Skin? We’ll never know. And, so, Harrison Ford is even imprinted on the movie, if you know the backstory to it. As Ford tells it in Agnès Varda’s documentary The World of Jacques Demy, he spent time location scouting with Demy, and he and the director did indeed go to a model shop (on Santa Monica Blvd – the exterior painted DayGlo). According to Ford, Demy recreated the interior quite accurately, as you saw it (but, I’m going to assume, with Demy’s visual flair and added color), and he talked about the long narrow corridor they walked down to meet their model – it was painted black. And that they were both shy.
So, here’s Lola (Anouk Aimée) working at such a place. A French woman in Los Angeles, she doesn’t have her work visa, and can only find employment at one of those model shops – a place where men pay by the quarter half hour or half-hour to take pictures of women scantily clad or, obviously, nude (or maybe more if the price is right). So close and yet, so far-distanced by a machine-possessed only in image, a lens and, in a way, defining the only way Demy could capture and enshrine a mysterious and perhaps confusing kind of love at first sight – via his own camera.
Lola carries a whole past with her, of course, everyone does, but she also carries an entire Demy movie. Two movies, in fact (three if you want to count where her brooding paramour of 1961 ends up – Cherbourg). The foundational movie is, quite appropriately, Lola, Demy’s sublime first picture released in 1961, starring Aimée as Lola, in which Lola worked singing and dancing at a cabaret in Nantes, France, hoping for her great love (and father to her seven-year-old son) to return.
It’s richly rewarding to find all of the inter-connectivity in Demy’s work, so much that you dig for it throughout his movies, afraid you might have missed one reference, one recurring character (and indeed, I may have). It puts you, the viewer, right in his mindset, wondering and longing to assemble what is an intimate fresco of memories or dreams. In Lola, Aimée is much cheerier and more smiling and girlish, while harboring the sadness of waiting for Michel (Jacques Harden). There are imprints of both Michel and young Lola in Aimée’s Lola of Model Shop – she wears a similar white sheath dress, out with a man smitten, here it’s George (in Lola, it’s Roland, played by Marc Michel, who will then fall for Deneuve’s heartbroken and waiting-for-another, Geneviève in Umbrellas of Cherbourg). And then there’s the white convertible she drives. Her beloved Michel opens Lola looking very American in all white clothing including a white Stetson hat and driving a long white convertible Cadillac through Nantes while Lola is not yet aware, he has returned. At the end of Lola, the two reunite and drive off together in that long white Cadillac as lovelorn Roland, sadly walks to a different future.
But as we’ll learn near the end of Model Shop, Lola and Michel will not make it. They will divorce. He’ll fall for another – a gambler in Las Vegas named Jackie Demaistre – from Demy’s second film, Bay of Angels, in which Jackie is played by a tough, but sad-eyed, vulnerable bottled blonde Jeanne Moreau. She, too, is a mother (divorced), going through life at a roulette wheel. Jackie plays with chance, perhaps as a way to control it. In Demy’s universe, chance influences so much of our lives.
In something like chance, George spies Lola at, of all perfect places within this movie, a parking lot. He’s managed to drive off the repo man for the time being – but only if he can secure 100 dollars to pay off his car loan. He asks a friend who works as a parking attendant for some dough – the friend declines, nicely, since George already owes him money. But there he sees Lola, and follows her (some might view this as creepy), and driving on Sunset he turns to drive up a hill, and finds Lola driving to one of those swanky residences up in the hills – Lola is off to a mysterious meeting or appointment of some kind. She knocks and enters this house. We never know who it is or why or what is happening inside. George sits in his car and then gets out, taking in the view, the sprawling geography of Los Angeles looking beautiful and lonely but full of possibility. He drives away. He picks up a hitchhiker (she rolls a joint – rather expertly as the grass impossibly doesn’t fly out all over the place – and hands it to George for the ride). He deposits her down on Sunset. She walks away – and this being a Demy movie, we almost wonder if she’ll return in some way – she doesn’t. He drives to another friend’s place – the house where the band Spirit practice and live (another imprint of the real invading movie life – this is the actual band who also provide the atmospheric soundtrack for the movie – the gorgeous, melancholic opening tune “Fog” will really stick with you).
These guys are excited about their new record – they have a purpose George doesn’t seem to have, not immediately anyway – and so, here, we see, not burned-out hippies, but men actually creating and achieving. (We wonder what might be in a few more years – the 1970s are upon all of these characters) George sits with Spirit’s lead singer, Jay Ferguson, as he plays a new song on the piano. There’s something really lovely about this moment – watching George listen, and the look on Lockwood’s face is unsmiling but thoughtful – if you really look at him during this scene, you really feel for him. Jay says, “I haven’t got the words down yet. But I know what I want them to do. I’d like them to be sort of a personal testimony: the insanity of this world. I don’t know. It’s really far out. But, if I could just get it down, like it is in my head.” (A relatable creative desire if there ever was one). Jay asks George what he’s up to; if he’s still at his old job. George says he couldn’t take it anymore; it was wasting him and he tells him he’s broke. He asks (he says he feels weird about it) for 100 bucks. Jay generously gives it to him, smiling and telling him not to worry about it because everything is “going great for us” – his band. Jay is really sweet. It’s touching. Jay asks what he’s up to, what’s next for him:
“I don’t know. I’m not gonna give up architecture really want to create something. I just can’t seem to wait out the 15 or 20 years it takes to establish your reputation and then for what? To design service stations and luxury motels? (laughs) I keep going around in circles I guess, trying to find out what the choices are, wasting a lot of time. Like this morning (laughs) – I did an incredible thing. I was in my car and I started to follow this … uh nothing. It’s not very interesting.”
Jay presses that it is interesting and to tell him. George says:
“I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that leads up into the hills – and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place; it’s conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. And to think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something. You know what I mean?”
There is the exhilaration Didion spoke of – and George, rather poignantly, opening up to his friend about it. He really loves the city – he’s not cynical or hardened or beaten down by it yet. He’s not felt the deep darkness via the terrors of 1969 Los Angeles yet (chiefly, Manson), but there’s a lingering dread nonetheless. I suppose some found this scene (as well as others), corny or earnest, or “too European,” but I find it moving, particularly in that George (via Demy) is sticking up for Los Angeles. Already at this point, Los Angeles was a city people professed to hate, smudged with smog and a hollow Hollywood dream (of course there is so much more to Los Angeles than Hollywood – if people and certainly cynical visitors would actually drive around more, and take in neighborhoods – they might understand the city’s history and multi-cultural population). This persists – this tired Alvy Singer thought, that Los Angeles’s only “cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light…” Not true – about the cultural advantage, the right on red is valid and damn crucial if you’ve ever spent time driving in this place.
In the excellent, essential essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen discusses Model Shop and says he took issue with it when he was younger, not for its love of Los Angeles, but for its limited terrain. But, apparently, with time, he came to find the film moving. As he stated, “Jacques Demy loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can, or maybe I should say, as only a French tourist can. I resented Model Shop when it came out because it was a West Side movie. Its vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street. But now I can appreciate an early poignant Los Angeles, a city. It’s totally incoherent, but if you live here, you have to be moved.” As I’ve said, it is moving. And if you don’t live here, you can be moved as well.
Demy relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a time – and he really got into the place. With the success of his third movie, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (also nominated for four other Oscars – Best Song, Best Original Score, Best Scoring – Adaptation or Treatment and Best Screenplay), Columbia Pictures called, and Demy took it. (Before Model Shop, he had also directed another sublime musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967 – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture) And so, he, with his wife, the brilliant filmmaker Agnès Varda (Model Shop should also be viewed with Varda’s impressive work made in Los Angeles – among them, 1967’s Uncle Yanco, 1968’s Black Panthers, 1969’s LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES), 1981’s Mur Murs), they found inspiration all over the place – fell hard for it. And like Lockwood’s George, they would drive.
As Varda said, “We had a convertible car. We were playing the game. Then I would drive. I would take Pico and go from the ocean to downtown. I would do Sunset Boulevard that turns a lot. I would do all the streets – Venice Boulevard, etc. I was impressed, absolutely impressed.” Demy spoke of driving as well, and how driving in Los Angeles was in and of itself cinematic: “I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. L.A. has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”
You see this in Model Shop’s opening shot – set next to George’s Venice Beach home (with an oil rig out front) – Demy films a majestic crane pull back on a camera car as Spirit’s “Fog” plays, and we take in the location and atmosphere of Venice, riding along smoothly with the camera. It’s already automobilized, and it serves a vehicular connection to the opening shots of Lola and Bay of Angels. With Bay of Angels (one can’t help but think, now, as we watch Model Shop, of the City of Angels) the camera executes a vertiginous, virtuoso pull back from Jeanne Moreau walking the boardwalk in Nice, Michel Legrand’s music soaring until we no longer see her, and the city flies by. In Lola, a white Cadillac drives into the frame, a man in white gets out of the car and looks at the sea. He jumps back in, and the camera does a similar crane pullback (albeit much shorter) as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony plays. With Lola, we see the man in white actually driving the car, and the camera is then mounted on the back, we follow the Stetson-hatted man, eyeing his view. All three movies seem to be taking in surroundings via car (in Lola, most directly), and with music, and it’s so beautiful; so, stirring. Demy’s oblique visual rhyming between the three movies deepens the poignancy. He loved camera movement and music and Max Ophuls (Lola is dedicated to the great Ophuls), and he used all of this love in such a personal way. There is such coveting and longing and missing in the cinema of Demy, making vehicles a perfect encapsulation of this notion – cars and people are in some ways, to use the time-worn Longfellow phrase, ships that pass in the night, only there’s much more connection than we may have thought.
George drives back up to that swanky house in the hills and, this time boldly rings the doorbell. He asks about the woman who was there earlier, this morning, and the response from inside is – there was no woman here: “nobody came.” As if George saw a ghost. He leaves. He drives again, this time stopping to get a hamburger. By coincidence, he sees the woman in white walking down the street – he leaves his hamburger behind and follows her. She walks into the model shop, and he follows. Inside it’s all red velvet wallpaper with pink curtains and violet paint, black and white photos of models on the wall. A blonde woman in a mini skirt and black boots sits on the couch, watching the T.V., barely noticing him. She nicely hands him a photo album – he can pick his girl – and he comes across Lola. He picks her. It’s a bit creepy and sad and all too easy – you feel for Lola and how vulnerable she is. You wonder if he thinks the same, but he’s stone-faced, probably out of nerves, like young Harrison Ford and Jacques Demy before him. He gets the lowdown – you rent the girl 20 dollars for a half hour, 12 dollars for 15 minutes, six exposures of film, camera and film included. He picks 12 dollars (he just borrowed 100 bucks; you are very aware of George’s relationship with dough right now). A guy older than George in a suit and loose tie comes out with his camera, turning it in after his session. He looks more like the type you’d imagine would haunt this kind of place in 1968 – a guy more of the 1950s, an Irving Klaw enthusiast. The place is never presented as sordid, but certainly detached, and not exactly George’s scene. Demy neither romanticizes the place nor insults it or the women there – it’s just work. And when George is alone in the room with Lola, the exchange is realistically awkward, even a bit lifeless.
He doesn’t really attempt to talk to her, he doesn’t really act like a man who is smitten, he seems sour, disappointed even, but he takes all six photos, Lola posing however she likes because he doesn’t care what she does. It’s all very chaste, Lola mostly wrapping herself in her fluffy robe. It feels off seeing either of them in this place – George is more at home in his car and Lola seems like she should be anywhere else, dancing, smiling, not just posing – if we’ve already seen Demy’s Lola, we are wondering about where she lives, where her son is, if she’s happy. What happened to Michel? If we haven’t seen Lola we just find it even more mysterious. When George is down to his last shot, the conversation goes:
Lola: You have only one left. If you want me to do anything…
George: I like what I’ve got.
Lola: You don’t seem particularly interested in photography.
George: I’m not. I’m more interested in you. Besides, I don’t think the guys who come here give a damn for the art of photography, do they?
Lola: I don’t judge the customers. It’s not my concern.
George: It’s kind of degrading work, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
Lola: To make my living… But I don’t like this word, “degrading.” After all, I don’t know what YOU do, to make your living.
George: Me? Nothing, right now.
Lola: Then you don’t run the risk of degrading yourself by working.
George: You’re French.
Lola: As you can hear.
George: I followed you this morning.
Lola: Yes, I know… Good-bye.
Good-bye. And that is that. He doesn’t reach out to her, doesn’t ask for her number, more about her life, nothing. Part of this seems like a good idea – he shouldn’t bother this woman – he shouldn’t walk in and ask aloud if what she does is degrading. But he’ll learn and he’ll think more. George seems slightly surprised by his actions, albeit in a low key way. Demy shows George leave, driving again, taking the film to the designated place on Selma Ave. He drives to extend his car payments (he needs to pay by that night, or his car will be taken away the next morning). He drives more and then winds up at his friend’s alternative newspaper, where they offer him some work. (His friends are so damn nice) “I got the draft hanging over my head, makes it kind of tough to plan anything,” George says. The men discuss the draft, their status within it, and the Vietnam War, and you think anything “heavy” that is said in this picture, well, it’s understandable with this kind of worry darkening these young men, who are trying to smile and laugh it off as much as they can. But not all of them can. And then George calls home, borrows money from his mother (whom he clearly loves) and learns from his dad (whom he clearly does not relate to) what has been hanging over him – that his draft notice has come.
Will George see Lola again? Indeed, he will, as he ventures back to the model shop and finally asks her out. One of the reasons? One he says, anyway? They both share a love for Los Angeles. Lola says she is leaving, anxious to return to France, but admits she will miss the city, that she loves Los Angeles. George says, “Well, that’s surprising, you know, most people hate it. Well, now, there’s two of us that like it. And that’s a good enough reason to get on out and have a drink, isn’t it? When the two meet in the parking lot, their cars vertical to one another, they share some of their life story. How old they are (or around how old they are), what they’re up to, what they came from, and what they are, or are not looking forward to. George, the dismal draft, and Lola (stage name – her real name is Cecile, she tells him), she yearns to see her son whom she’s not seen in two years. He’s about 14 now. It’s a beautiful scene, all the more affecting that that they open up via car – it jives beautifully with Demy’s vehicular lyricism, and we wonder if they would have only opened up while sitting behind the wheels of their convertibles. It shows how cars are not necessarily disconnecting; there’s a feeling of protection that makes one feel safe to utter things they may not have said. So much so that George tells Lola that he loves her.
“You’re very nice. And what you say is very moving. But you don’t know me at all,” a very sweet but tentative Lola says. She wisely understands that he just needs someone – perhaps it’s not just her. He becomes defensive, particularly about the kind of life she lives (she sees this as insulting – it is), but boy, does he not get how much more Lola knows about life and love than he does. But by the time the movie closes, I think he will get it. And he’ll, actually, truly, love her as a person, not as something he needs.
George and Lola will go to Lola’s place and talk more. Here, Aimée is absolutely lovely and heart-rending, showing George pictures of her past (pictures straight out of the movie Lola) – of her ex-husband, Michel, of her former lover, a sailor (also from Lola) whom she intended to catch up with in Chicago, but found out he died in Vietnam. You spy Roland in a photo, but she says nothing of him, but you also see a French magazine with Catherine Deneuve on the cover – Roland’s future. She talks about Michel leaving her for Bay of Angels’ Jackie and how depressed she was. How she has given up on love. It’s such a beautiful performance, and with the imprints of Demy, his movies and Aimee’s Lola (“Lola in L.A.” Varda called in in The World of Jacques Demy) deepening this woman who works at something so simply called a “model shop.” You never know who you might drive up next to in a parking lot in Los Angeles, and George has just found a woman of multitudes. They spend the night together, and George gives her his last bit of dough to help pay for her trip to France. When he returns home, his girlfriend is leaving him (all for the best – even if she is supposedly going to sell out, you don’t not feel for her either) and he’s hoping to see Lola one more time. He calls up her place but her roommate informs him she’s already left. George (and Lockwood especially) is really poignant at this moment. Lola may have given up on love, but she does not believe in giving up on trying, and that really sticks with George. He says to her roommate:
“I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I wanted to try to begin again. You know what I mean? That I was, I just wanted her to know that I was going to try. Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it. But, I can, you know. I mean, I personally can. Always try, you know. Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.”
Much of Demy’s work is concerned with similar thematic elements: the near misses of love, the aching, longing nature of our solitude and the casual destruction of our destiny by the arbitrary intervention of a superstructure: morals, conventions or the military draft to fight a war that feels alien or downright wrong to us. He seems to really believe in love, or the hope of love or the transforming, musical exaltations of love (and pain), and he believes in trying. Driving forward? Perhaps, within the steel and glass, rolling alongside us in a busy, deceitfully sunny freeway is the very soul that could redeem us from this world and ourselves.
At the end of Model Shop, you see outside of George’s house – his car is, finally, being towed away. And we wonder what George will do now – regarding the draft, regarding his wheels. He takes his freedom very seriously and he loves to drive… What now? We’re not sure. But we do hope he will drive, again, with his own car, wherever he wants to go. And that he will, indeed, try …. “Yeah, always try.”
From my New Beverly piece.