Bay of Angels (1963)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
From the opening credits, Bay of Angels explodes onto the screen. The energy of this sequence will propel the rest of the film forward, a visual representation of the distance between people, of long winding personal journeys intersecting with another’s, and even the overstimulated rush provided by gambling. Demy’s characters are always caught up in their passions, and women are found at the center of things. For the director, women seem to be the key for a man to feel life; without them, everything seems to fall into abject misery. Of course, that doesn’t mean life is going to be sunshine and rainbows with a woman in your life, but you will, if nothing else, feel something. These celestial figures light up every nerve ending, even if the sensation is searing pain.
Jean (Claude Mann) is a Paris bank employee living with his widowed father. His colleague Caron takes him to a casino, and Jean finds luck at the roulette wheel. This dangling carrot causes him to holiday in Southern France to take advantage of the large number of casinos. His father, who disdains gambling, kicks Jean out of his home. In Nice, Jean crosses paths with Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), a platinum blonde who left her husband & child because she can’t get gambling out of her system.
From the first moments, she makes it clear that she’ll hurt Jean without a second thought if it means she can keep betting & playing. He accepts this inevitable betrayal because nothing else in life makes him feel anything. And so, we follow these two lovers as they spiral into hedonistic oblivion. While other Demy movies feel stuffed to the rafters with supporting characters and subplots, Bay of Angels is a notably sparse cast, the film centering almost entirely on Jean & Jackie. There are no larger goals or plot developments, nothing melodramatic or fantastical, just two people wasting away their money on the roulette wheel.
I haven’t mentioned him yet (but oh, we will talk about him even more in upcoming reviews), but the music of Michel LeGrand is inseparable from Demy’s visuals. LeGrand can transform the piano into a behemoth, capturing the internal drama of this couple, his fingers attacking the keys in a frenzy. In our modern times, with the ambient drone of so many film soundtracks, it is damn refreshing to hear film music with such energy & power. LeGrand doesn’t compose a mountain of pieces but creates a theme or two and keeps delivering variations on them throughout Demy’s films. Those variations track the mood and plot with perfect accuracy. LeGrand’s music truly launches us into the movie with those opening credits.
Jeanne Moreau is a significant face in this film; she was a darling of the French New Wave and eventually a regular in all sorts of European productions. In 1963 alone, she was in five different films. The character of Jackie feels like a very Demy-esque take on a French New Wave trope, the proto-manic pixie dream girl. Before that term was coined, these types of women were all over French cinema in the 1960s, often intended to capture a youthful cuteness/sexiness that appealed to young men. Jackie is a bit different, though, she does lure the male protagonist in, but she makes sure he knows upfront this will probably end badly. She doesn’t exist as a promise to make his life have meaning, she’s taking care of herself, and if Jean wants to come along for the ride, he’s more than welcome for as long as it lasts. Jackie only cares about feeling alive in a dead, hollow world.
Bay of Angels does better than most of Demy’s films in clearly communicating his worldview. These are not romantic movies despite their plots involving love & sex. Demy is making beautiful, colorful tragedies and not being shy about letting them be operatic. Jackie and Jean’s story is nothing remarkable, stories of lovers falling into squalor happen every day, but through Demy’s eye and LeGrand’s piano, these stories are elevated, held in a beam of light, and allowed to be a glorious, fiery explosion, an epic end to what might otherwise be forgotten and swept away. These characters’ lives are a never-ending tumult. Is anyone’s life not like that when we honestly contemplate them? For Demy, every human experience is worthy of an opera. Which is what he will literally do in his next and most perfect film…