Model Shop (1969)
Written by Jacques Demy & Carole Eastman
Directed by Jacques Demy
Something changed on his vacation to Los Angeles. Demy hadn’t intended to make a film there but felt the spirit he’d seen die in Paris was now happening in the States. He’d entered into a depression, feeling that the people he’d admired in France were stumbling, unsure of how to present something fresh or even articulate the moment they were all living in. Where Demy’s previous work embraced the artifice of film production, he violently shakes that away here, preferring a more naturalistic style of filmmaking. Non-actors are cast wherever Demy can put them, and there’s an absence of narrative, just wandering, making Model Shop feel like an ancestor of Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Yet, it was another film flop that failed to connect with critics or audiences of the time.
George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) is an unemployed architect living with his girlfriend, Gloria (Alexandra Hay), in Los Angeles. One morning, repo men show up to take back his car, and George manages to negotiate with them into having until the afternoon of the next day to provide the money. After that, he begins going around to friends, asking for bits of cash here and there. While George runs these errands, he glimpses a beautiful foreign woman (Anouk Aimee), following her for a bit but keeping his distance. Eventually, she goes into a storefront, and he follows only to find it is a model shop. This is a fetish business where customers pay to take erotic photographs of a model wearing lingerie. George learns her name is Lola, but she has little interest in conversing with him. Later, George returns home to find his draft notice, meaning he will be headed to basic training and Vietnam within months. Suddenly, everything he was working towards that day disappears, and he isn’t quite sure what to do.
Stylistically this is night & day compared to something like The Young Girls of Rochefort, and that can be disorienting if you’ve come to the film expecting a continuation of those aesthetics. The aimless nature of the narrative is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s work, yet Demy has not entirely divorced himself of his old interests. George’s story, especially his infatuation and eventual heartbreak with Lola, is precisely the story that was happening in older films. Even the draft notice that upsets the main character’s goals is similar to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. While Model Shop feels “gritty,” it doesn’t quite capture the seediness of Los Angeles at the time. Once again, it’s still a fantasy version of the city seen through the eyes of an outsider. The cinematographic style is different, but really, Demy is just delivering a variation on a theme.
Anouk Aimee is reprising her role as Lola from the film of the same name. At the end of that film, she appears to be the only character with their dreams of love realized, but in Model Shop, we find that love has soured. Michel, the father of her son who returned at the end of Lola, has left her again, this time for a woman named Jackie. It is implied it’s the same Jackie played by Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels. So Lola never got a happy ending if her film shows us a happy ending right before the credits roll. In Model Shop is more broken than we’ve ever seen her. Lola eventually opens up to George and explains her son is living back in France, and she’s trying to make money to send back to support him. Unfortunately, she can’t get a work visa in the United States and has to do sex work to make some money. Where she and George end their relationship almost mimics the ending of Lola’s first film but with a twist.
Alexandra Hay as Gloria is also delivering a fantastic performance, aided by the slight amateurish nature of her acting. I don’t know how much is a choice or deliberate, but it works. She wants to be an actress, and a male friend in the background appears to be helping her make headway. George is suspicious, and eventually, Gloria leaves him to go live with the friend. Maybe this friend is a predator, or George drove Gloria away because of his aimlessness. Gloria running away with someone who will make her dreams come to true parallels Lola & Michel. So in hearing Lola’s story, we might be glimpsing a possible future for Gloria.
In true Demy fashion, the film ends on a note of heartbreak. I think this may be the most overtly brutal one. There really is no way to spin what happens to George as any sort of positive; he is literally alone, just talking to a stranger on the phone. In his mind, he’s staring down the barrel of a gun waiting for him in Vietnam. It’s an emotion we might be feeling a lot right now, lacking the ability to imagine a happy future when everything laid before us is oblivion. Despite his romantic window dressing, Model Shop is a stark reminder that Demy was a troubled soul who could clearly articulate the sense of hopelessness in his life. He tells us that we should keep love close to our hearts but understand it will be lost & regained throughout our lives.