Model Shop

Model Shop ★★★★★

I'm awash with emotion right now for various reasons. But seeing this unbelievably accomplished piece of Angeleno Neorealism—one of the only films of its kind—makes me see the silver linings on the horizon, and that love is life and life is love.

Living is listless. Waiting for a grand payoff to the doldrums of quotidian existence may prove to be a fruitless task, as it does to all the people caught in the sticky web of withering dreams in Jacques Demy's tragic film Model Shop. The intermittent fun-times of his previous effervescent flights (Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) are over and done with. What are left are pangs of unshakable emptiness. It's what you feel when you're in a spell of depression. It's a deadly feeling that Demy the humanist-who-refuses-to-throw-in-the-towel combats with a sensation as old as time itself: love.

For Demy's only sojourn in America, he temporarily departs his beloved coastal French cities (Nantes, Nice, Cherbourg, Rochefort) and darts to the West-Best Coast, where everyone is high and spirits are low. Ostensibly a film about sunny Los Angeles, Model Shop, a dark grey cloud-flick hanging glumly in the baby-blue California sky, embodies the pessimistic milieu of something like Richard Lester's Petulia, a similar masterpiece about shattered dreams and missed connections. Demy centers his depressing drama around a soon-to-be-drafted young man named George Matthews (Gary Lockwood of 2001 fame) with a deadbeat girlfriend, no job, no money, and no hope. The time is 1969. The place is Los Angeles, at the tail-end of the hippie era. The players are the bored George and the young striptease model he encounters in a seedy L.A. model shop, a girl named Lola (Anouk Aimee).

Fans of Demy will of course recognize Lola from her previous appearences in Demy's universe: his debut feature Lola from 1961, which she also headlined, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from 1964, where she was name-dropped as the cause of a certain Roland Cassard's unhappiness. But, oh, how the tables have sadly turned. Whereas Cassard could find at least partial happiness with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) after Lola left him unhappy, in this sad sequel, Lola is revealed to be still searching for happiness. Cassard could learn to love again; Lola cannot. She's been abandoned, forgotten, been chewed up and left to bake in the Los Angeles sun. Lola is afraid to fall in love again; she's had her heart broken before by a man (Michel) who did not appreciate her, and now she's been reduced to eking out a meager living in a shithole of a model-shop. When George's blonde girlfriend Gloria finds pictures of Lola in George's bed, she lashes out at him: "How could you?! She's nothing but a slut!"

But, of course, we know better. We know where Lola came from. We've seen her side of the story.

Model Shop is the last film in Demy's filmography that takes place in the twisting-and-turning universe of his first few features. Through a series of convoluted twists and turns, it seems as though Demy has written or killed off nearly every single major character in his first three films. Frankie the Sailor from Lola was killed in Vietnam. Michel from Lola ran off with Jackie from Bay of Angels. Jackie from Bay of Angels has relapsed, sinking ever deeper into her gambling addiction, presumably leaving behind the only man who truly cared about her: Jean. Delphine Garnier from The Young Girls of Rochefort (in this world, now known as Catherine Deneuve) is a movie actress, world-renowned for her beauty and appearing on the cover of TIME. Take that, Tarantino; not only does everything in Demy's universe converge in Model Shop, Demy repudiates all the fun-times and ambiguous happy-endings of those pictures. What's left in its wake is a profound sense of loss, mirroring the listlessness of Model Shop's Angeleno characters who don't know what to do with their lives. Lola's been reduced to posing for strangers, her face splotched with a pasty-white sunglass sunburn. And with all the characters of the previous films dead or disappeared, Demy seems to be hitting the "reboot" button on his career: we've gone this far, and we've been disappointed, but let's start again and perhaps we'll find something new.

Before I go on, let me say that Demy absolutely nails what it's like to live in L.A. It's a ugly city with a golden heart, a subtle feeling of profoundness that exists underneath the dreck and the misery and the grotty urban grit. Demy finds a profound metaphor for L.A. in the oil-rigs that prominently figure in his lackadaisical mise-en-scene. Anyone who's lived in L.A. for a long time will never forget these curious flamingo-looking beasts that pepper the plains of L.A. coastal freeways like birds gathering to roost. Like those oil rigs patiently searching for gold that is not there, Demy's characters go about their days patiently searching for that missing ingredient that will make their life complete. They don't want to let go of L.A. because, even though they've been disappointed millions of times before, they know the next time might be the lucky break. Demy, like Gary Lockwood, is fascinated by L.A.'s contradictions: the ugly mingled with the urbane beauty. Only a foreigner could make this poignant a film; he's able to have enough distance to objectively measure the milieu of the city. He finds holiness in the most unlikely of places: not an L.A. church, but the interior of a diner-pool-hall that buzzes with quotidian beauty. Demy's L.A. is a sociey in flux, an elusive world where pastel candy colors only spring up in the most hollow objects: the dull green of a marijuana joint, the shiny red of a poolball.

In direct opposition to the film's washed-out colors stands Anouk Aimee, her velveteen white dress holding on to the last vestiges of early 60s black-and-white purity, an anachronism from Lola that she refuses to bury. She stands for beauty in an age where such beauty is trampled upon by cold-hearted men who have neither time nor patience to appreciate women for their limitless worth.

Demy's Model Shop has the pulsating reach of a thorough social scan. He dishes out equal amounts of sympathy and contempt for everyone in this rambling drama. Even George's disappointed girlfriend Gloria, played brilliantly by Alexandra Hay, doesn't register with the bitchiness inherent to her character on paper. Demy brings out the sensitive side in her, making us understand her troubles. Instead of dismissing her, we can see why she is so disappointed at her boyfriend George's lack of motivation. She entered a committed relationship with him, and she's doing her part: why can't he? He has practically given up on life, but somehow she hasn't given up on him. At the same time, Demy also makes us privy to George's mindset, his neuroses which eerily mirror those of Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols's equally stunning 60s-ennui flick The Graduate. (The crucial difference between these two films is that Nichols feels muted hostility towards his crumb-bum creepazoid protagonist; Demy is too nice and too generous and too understanding to feel such crass feelings. Perhaps this makes Demy the more mature filmmaker.) Demy's fiction also deflates hippies better than the real-life documentary look at hippies in the Maysles Brothers's rather unconvincing Gimme Shelter, a film that shoehorns in its message of hippies dying out with none of the genuine, unadorned, neorealist observations made by Demy in Model Shop.

Demy adapts his observational style very well to America. His sedate camera movements perfectly capture the ennui-stifling feeling of loss and impatience that comes with L.A. living. Lola and George are certainly not California dreamin'. Everything unfolds with maddening listlessness (the key descriptor for this film) that makes us unsure about what we're going to do next. The car sequences, in particular, are so richly realistic in their detail: all the time, we get this gnawing feeling inside out souls, a bored-yet-terrified feeling that we don't know where these people are driving and where we the audience are going. George, of course, isn't sure either. George has no purpose in life anymore, it seems. The draft hangs over his head, but he doesn't care. Vietnam had jaded everyone in America to the point that whether someone goes or not isn't a problem to worry about. It's a reality everyone faces, and everyone must suck up and take. So tragic, but so true.

At one point, Lola's and George's perspectives merge. We see the same things they both see. They're driving down the Sunset Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Demy's film makes the realities of the era's fears palpable to audiences today. George, like Guy in the earlier Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is drafted. However, their girlfriends react in dynamically opposite manners: whereas Genevieve in Umbrellas cries "I will wait for you", Gloria in Model Shop sighs "Oh! what a mess...." Even the threat of war and potential death cannot inspire these bored sad-sacks. Like it or not, this is the reality so many young men--mostly blacks and Hispanics--had to face when the time came for them to ship out to Viet Nam in the 60s. George is one of those forgotten faces to die in the name of Uncle Sam and the Domino Theory: he will likely have nothing to his memory once he's departed from the earth. Demy captures the fear of the draft so well. He makes it palpable to a modern audience in 2015 who thankfully doesn't have to live their lives with such a threat looming over their heads. It is a brutal mortality reminder that brings tears to my eyes even thinking about it. The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July could not inspire such tears. Demy can.

But amid all the sorrow of Model Shop there shines Demy's humanist hope. George is afraid of death, but for good reason. He sees no reason to throw in the towel just yet. In one of the film's most beautiful lines, one that gains even more poignancy when we realize its writer (Demy) died suddenly before it was his time to go, Demy-through-George says, "You know what? Maybe I AM a coward. Maybe I AM afraid of death. But, then, what is more beautiful than life?" It's a question you don't really ask yourself often because you don't think of it, but it's a reality everybody faces. We can't pretend it doesn't exist. But at the same time, as George realizes, we can (and often do) go through life with a sickly hesitancy to do anything. "What's the point if we're all going to go?" one may ask.

The point is life, despite the vulgar sound of this too-often-abused cliché, is beautiful. It's for girls like Lola that life is worth living for. It's for cities like L.A. that life is worth living for. It's for introspective guys like George, and bands like the Beatles, and films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and people like the people we meet in a Demy film--for all of these, and then some, there is a purpose in life. That unifying ingredient is love. Familial love. Romantic love. Love of food, of music, of movies, of books, of people in the city. Love of doing what you're passionate about doing without having to cave in to societal demands. Love of living without relative cares. This is the secret, and yet it's so elusive, so hard to truly grasp.

It probably shouldn't surprise us that this film was a failure. Imagine the ire of the Columbia execs who saw the finished film! They were probably expecting another sunny musical from Demy, the only crucial difference being that it would be set in Los Angeles. When they didn't get it, they dropped Demy flat on his ass and sent him and his wife Agnes Varda packing. The execs figured no one wants to go to the movies to be reminded of their mortality, of the draft, of the bad things happen to life. Movies are meant to be escapist....right? And Demy is the master of escapism....right? Well, as Model Shop adroitly demonstrates, dreams and reality can rest comfortably alongside one another in the same boat. They are not mutually exclusive; one cannot exist without the other.

We don't all understand the secret to life yet. We can only hope we can see movies like Model Shop to remind us that it can never be too late to start loving: we can start the learning-loving-living process at any point in our lives. And as George Matthews resolves to do in the film's devastating ending, we will go on living with the knowledge that we're going to give life one more go....because to give up means death. And what is more beautiful than life?

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