Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
The French New Wave was a dominant force in Western cinema in the post-War era. The various filmmakers associated with the movement (Goddard, Truffaut, et al.) left an indelible mark on how movies are made, but at some point, they faded into the background as other countries around the world started revolutionizing cinema in their own way. Jacques Demy was a French filmmaker, a little younger than the New Wave auteurs, whose best work happened after that attention had faded. He made some incredible movies, often inspired by Hollywood pictures but with his own flourishes added. His name would not be as well known as his older peers, but his work would resonate with certain modern filmmakers. Damien Chazelle cited The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as “the greatest film ever made” and heavily cribbed from it and The Young Girls of Rochefort for his La La Land. I think Demy deserves much more accolades for the brilliant remixing of film elements he presented in his work.
Roland (Marc Michel) is aimless in the wake of World War II. He finds himself back in his hometown of Nantes, an Atlantic coastal city in France. Roland has a chance encounter with Lola (Anouk Aimee), who he knew before the war. She’s a cabaret dancer, and Roland can’t hide his feelings for her. Lola is not too interested as she’s still upset over her former love Michel leaving her with their seven-year-old child. Lola has another man pursuing her affections, an American sailor named Frankie, who she rebukes. Roland is despondent at Lola’s rejection and ends up working for a local barber who wants the young man to join him in a diamond smuggling operation. This compounds into more and more trouble for Roland.
Lola is a film at a nexus point, heavily inspired by Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). Demy stated that it was also an homage to the films of Max Ophuls and referred to Lola as a “musical without music.” It certainly has that feel with its plot, and we’ll see that as Demy progresses as a filmmaker, he incorporates more and more elements of big Hollywood musicals into his work. Lola would inspire Wong Kar-Wai as a significant influence on his Chungking Express. One major thing I think we learn from studying art of any kind is that nothing exists in a vacuum. The best art is part of an ongoing conversation that can happen throughout generations. I think young artists often get discouraged that they cannot conjure up wholly original work when they need to understand that almost no artist since the beginning of humanity was making anything original. Even cave paintings were just people marking down what they saw, not imagining it. I would argue that art as commentary is some of the most fascinating art because it can cause you to see the world from a new perspective.
Lola came out amid the peak of the French New Wave, yet it is rarely brought up in discussions of the best pictures of that movement. I’d argue it meets the criteria of those other films as it was made on a small budget, shot in black and white, and filmed on location. The cinematography of Demy’s early work is stunning for the period. There will often be overexposed shots that ultimately work; they feel naturally lit and add a sense of texture to the space. Faint beams of light cascade through windows and cause Lola to appear angelic.
The most significant difference between Demy and his peers seems to be his approach to themes surrounding love and romance. Despite the presentation of his films, Demy is much more pessimistic about love. He is enraptured in the beauty of the melancholy of love, the poeticism of heartbreak. This is often represented through elements of fate interfering in the characters’ lives. In Lola, many characters serve as echoes across time. Roland meets a teenage girl named Cecile, who causes him to think of Lola, whose real name is Cecile. Cecile’s mother is a former dancer, like Lola. The sailor Frankie with his shock of bleach blond hair, reminds Lola of Michel. Michel is glimpsed from time to time during the movie as a blond man in a white suit and cowboy hat hurtling down the highway, his path destined to intercept Lola’s by the end of the film. Everyone reminds us of someone else, and we never seem to recognize the people right in front of us, always yearning for what is gone.
Happiness is a painfully transitory emotion in Demy’s work. Moments of pleasure & joy are always brief, so our characters hold onto the memories to help them keep going. Frankie befriends Cecile at one point, and they have a wonderful day at the Boardwalk. But then it ends, and they have to go on about their lives, likely never seeing each other again. When Michel appears to sweep away Lola in the movie’s conclusion, we must watch Roland walking away in the opposite direction, finally understanding he was lost in a dream. Demy doesn’t say we should hate these moments but embrace them as the bitter fruit of life, essential & necessary. People can’t learn if they don’t live in the moments of sadness just as much as they relish happy fortunes. Lola is a painfully underrated movie and a picture that should be revisited by those who loved La La Land or want a slightly different flavor of the Hollywood love story.