Jacques Demy's Lola has always been one of the more elusive of the well-known French romances of the early 60s. Like Demy's other films it doesn't proclaim itself to be cinema art, and usually gets left behind in the rush to promote Godard and Truffaut. One of the most romantic movies ever, it initiated the Demy 'philosophy of love' contained in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and Model Shop: our personal one-of-a-kind romances and heartbreaks are simply the same stories of hope and loss being re-lived by lovers unaware that their experiences aren't unique.
Demy's smash hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg had beautiful color, wall-to-wall music and the debut of Catherine Deneuve - but the millions of people enchanted by that picture don't realize that it is a direct sequel to this less-flashy but equally absorbing tale of love's yearnings.
Go back, if you will, to an odd scene in the middle of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Suave diamond merchant Roland Cassard is assuring Catherine Deneuve's mother that he's no stranger to the problems of love. "Autre fois ..." he begins to sing, initiating a new tune into the Michel Legrand score. "Once upon a time I loved a girl, her name was Lola, but she didn't love me." Umbrellas is a very stylized film, but in the middle of Cassard's lament, we cut back to a documentary-like shot of an old-fashioned shopping arcade, a quaint multi-level mall-like area.
Roland is practically the villain in Umbrellas, the unflappable, established older man who swoops down on the faltering romance between young Deneuve and her absent lover and steals the bride for himself. A mature reading of Umbrellas of course reveals that he isn't a villain at all, just another soul trying to find happiness. Lola tells his story.
Romance is both magical and mundane for Demy, sometimes the product of fate and sometimes of dumb luck. By the evidence of this movie, Romance has died from modern life because we live in the isolation of cars - everything that happens in Lola comes about by chance meetings between pedestrians on the streets, in shops. An overheard conversation might be followed by a polite introduction and the beginning of a relationship. The next stranger one passes could be a loved one from a few years back. The charm of Nantes is that everyone is a pedestrian walking on equal terms.
Demy's interesting but slightly forced The Young Girls of Rochefort is a ridiculously complicated web of intersecting paths and wild coincidences - desperate lovers keep narrowly missing each other, just like Buster Keaton thinking he's alone on the ship in The Navigator. Lola has a big helping of this pattern, and follows its four key characters with their musical themes. But it relies mostly on the 'repeated echoes' concept of Love, the idea that we all replay a small set of universal dramas, when we think our expwriences are unique. Roland talks about his mother's life being set because she ran away with a sailor at too young an age. Sure enough, young schoolgirl Cécile is smitten by a sailor, and thinks that her experience is the first and only time it's happened in history. 1
Most of Lola's lovers are still obsessed with their magical 'first love', magical precisely because of the individual's lack of experience. The older Roland Cassard in Umbrellas calmly moves in on Deneuve with the assurance of a man who holds all the cards. In Lola, he's still a lost soul unsure of his place in the world and looking for the magic woman to motivate him toward better things. He's far too genteel to be a bum, but he feels like one; he's willing to undertake a dangerous criminal smuggling job just to break his life's pattern of boredom.
Most of the characters of Lola are searching for the right mate, the key connections to make their lives work. Madame Desnoyers tries in vain to attract Roland; he's just too young for her. Good-hearted Frankie openly wants to enjoy Lola's company, and honestly tells her about his fiancée back in 'Chicago, Illinois'. The other girls at the El Dorado club secretly desire nothing more than the right man to walk in the door and carry them away. The older Jeanne (Margo Lion) wants her long-lost son to return some day. To young Cécile, Frankie is a way of escaping from her controlling mother. "Never contradict children" is a curious idea repeated twice in the dialogue. When mother puts too many roadblocks in the way of Cécile's dreams, the girl bolts.
Free-spirit Lola is of course the center of attention and the magic object of Love. She's all things to all men. We first see her as a sexy cabaret dancer who has usurped the name and costuming of The Blue Angel's Lola-Lola for her act. She's also the friendly port for the lonely man, sleeping again with the sailor passing through. Then she's the good mother, caring and loving to her happy little boy Yvón. In the face of ample evidence that lovers who disappear never return, Lola maintains a faithful vigil for her 'white knight', the father of her child.
The fantastic element enters Lola in the film's first scene, where we see Lola's Michel arrive in Nantes in his white Cadillac wearing a white suit and white Stetson. Roland attends a matinee of Return to Paradise, a title that indicates his desire to find his original first love Lola - he reports that the movie is about the little island Matareva in the South Seas. When explaining where he's been for seven years, Michel names the same island. It's a fanciful thread that attests to the illogical nature of our dreams and desires.
Lola has a huge heart and if not for her dream of Michel would surely be able to connect with the heartbroken Roland. Timing is everything. Roland loses but learns a lot about love from his experience. (Big Spoiler) When we last see him, he knows he's lost Lola and is off to pursue his criminal adventure. It apparently launches him in the diamond business and the success we see him enjoying in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The backstory of Lola is essential to understanding the depth of Umbrellas.
Exotic Anouk Aimée has a warmth that shines through her beauty (and her old-fashioned makeup). She repeated the role for Demy's fourth 'seaport' film (Nantes, Cherbourg, Rochefort, & Santa Monica) Model Shop, an American picture and now the only one not on DVD. Besides her appearances in Fellini epics, Aimée's other smash hit is of course A Man and A Woman. Savant has a soft spot for her sadistic Queen Bera in Robert Aldrich's The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Marc Michel was never as famous, but he made his mark in Jacques Becker's Le Trou as well as his Demy films. Michel is a great 'French' protagonist - he has the manners of a gentleman but in Lola something about his eyes and mouth suggest an unhappiness that might turn to cynicism. All of this youthful insecurity has been left behind by the time of Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Alan Scott plays the sailor Frankie; he looks like he could be Harrison Ford's older brother. A French actor dubs him, doing a good job with his lousy French accent but really making his 'American' English sound ridiculously false, a touch which becomes charming. Scott turned right around and played another sailor in Agnès Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7.
Demy's production is a shining testament to B&W 'scope filming, in this case, Franscope. The seaport of Nantes becomes one of the characters, especially that arcade-like shopping area - does it still exist? 3 Demy has a natural talent for where to place his camera and keeps it active and invisible at the same time; the only 'trick' he uses is slow-motion to signal the moment that young Cécile falls in love. Lola apparently got made because Jean-Luc Godard steered Demy to willing producer Georges de Beauregard; Raoul Coutard came along as well and gives the film his attractive lighting look. The handheld camerawork is especially good.
Although Wellspring's DVD of Lola touts Agnès Varda's meticulous film restoration, the disc doesn't look as good as it should. The transfer element appears to be reasonable, but the encoded image has a softness that doesn't hold up on a large projection television. Coutard often allows part of the image to blow out in overexposure, and without delicate encoding some of the scenes lose detail and look crude. 2
That said, the enchanting Lola is still strongly recommended. The removable subtitles are easy to read and there's an original trailer. Best of all is an excerpt from an Agnès Varda docu on Demy that fills its brief span with a number of choice stills, facts and remembrances, including a meeting of stars Aimée and Michel for the first time, 30 years later. Anouk loves Lola and greets Michel with an original line of dialogue from it. The excerpt also has a hand-written page of Michel's lyrics from Umbrellas. Roland's musical theme in the sequel is a carry-over from Lola; the sense of continuity while watching the earlier film makes us feel like we're discovering a lost love as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The 'repeated echoes'
concept is what makes John Ford's The Searchers deceptively profound. The young Texicans (Martin
Pauley, Laurie, Charlie McCorry) unknowingly repeat the tragic romantic mistakes
of the previous generation. Ethan loved Martha, but she got tired of waiting and married his brother
Aaron. Laurie loves Martin but gets set to marry Charlie in desperation that she'll become an old
maid (and also thinking Martin's married an Indian, Look). The clues to the Ethan-Martha-Aaron
seem subtle at first, but then practically scream their presence through the surface concerns of the
story. And that, children, is why creaky old John Ford remains a brilliant director.
2. It's very possible that Wellspring was handed a finished compression
to distribute and had no say in the matter. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was also called a great
restoration in the late 90's but its home video incarnations on both Criterion laserdisc and Fox Lorber
DVD are badly cropped. Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog reported that the Umbrellas DVD
was also time-compressed, and Lola may be running at PAL speed too ... some dialog scenes and action
seem a bit rushed. Both discs are still excellent viewing - I need to emphasize that I loved every
minute of Lola, even while wishing Criterion, HVe or Anchor Bay were in charge of its
3. A note from Neil W. on Lola and 'Demyology', 12.15.03:
A bit of trivia relating to the interlocking world of Demy's characters
that you may enjoy : just as Roland Cassard laments the loss of his great love, Lola, in
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, so Lola in Model Shop reflects on the loss of her great
love Michel who, she recalls, ran off with a gambling lady called Jackie Demaistre, the character
played by Jeanne Moreau in La Baie des Anges. Best regards, Neil