Less well known than his lighter romantic escapades, Bay of Angels is a serious look at the gambling bug and how it affects a relationship. Shot in B&W on actual locations, the feel of French casinos, luxury hotels and cheaper rooms is entirely convincing, and Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau make a fascinating couple. It's a character study about a difficult romance, this time centered on a habit that can become an obsession.
Bay of Angels can easily be slotted into the French New Wave and the romantic tradition in movies; but like other Jacques Demy films, it doesn't require any previous cultural indoctrination. Demy's uncluttered style follows an impressionable but fairly sensible young man through an adventure that probably isn't the one he had in mind when he backed out of an earlier marriage. It starts with a temptation, the lure of a friend who seems to be doing great as a professional gambler on the Riviera circuit. Jean tries his luck and plays his hunches at the roulette wheel, and doesn't do too badly at first, probably because he's not hooked into the need to make outrageous bets with the merciless wheel of fortune. One remembers the exchange in the noir classic Out of the Past:
Robert Mitchum: "That isn't the way to play it."
Jean first notices Jackie being tossed out of one casino, presumably for cheating. His attraction for her has a certain depth - she's fascinating as a gambler but also as a woman. Jackie is another story altogether. Her charm is more than superficial, but her gambling drive supercedes all of her other interests and urges. She openly admits that roulette ended her marriage, that just the possibility of luck and winning is a charge much stronger than that of romance. Nothing can compete with her gambling habit: "You shouldn't have gotten so deeply involved with me", she complains. "Too late", Jean answers.
Jean eventually does make a dent in Jackie's protective armor. He shows his concern and his disappointment when she steals, lies and runs promiscuously to the next man who can augment her luck or stake her for a new spin of the roulette wheel. Jackie gets called a slut and even slapped around before she realizes Jean cares enough for her to make a difference.
Jackie's lying is a key factor in the film's take on the gambling bug. On the surface, the movie seems a dangerous endorsement of the gambling lifestyle. Jean wins almost too easily, and his 'pal' Caron behaves as if life were an endless round of gambling evenings spent in tuxedoes in the company of beautiful women. Jackie has an elaborate defense mechanism of lies built up around the illusion that she's not doing anything wrong with her life; it's an addiction plain and simple. She lies constantly to Jean about her success, her past, how much money she has, and how she lives. It's all to deflect questions that might force her to admit that she's a gambling tramp in danger of losing what's left of her self-respect. Jackie's independence and adventurous spirit is exactly what Jean wants - but how to win her and not tumble with her into a sordid lifestyle?
We only see the Caron character a couple of times and he always projects an image of self-assurance and success. Either he has a limitless backstop of funding, or he's a liar too. When Caron appears in the lobby of a new casino, Jean immediately lies about his luck as well, talking about the amazing fortune he and Jackie won in the morning, but not how they lost it all in the afternoon. The illusion that luck and winning are somehow connected to one's hopes and attitude is gambling's killing lie.
There are films that show gambling addictions in different ways - Karel Reisz's The Gambler is a pure addiction story, whereas Robert Altman's California Split shows how two part-time poker players have turned a rather tawdry existence into a flaky lifestyle choice. Jacques Demy's take is of course a romantic story. The mechanics of the roulette game are irrelevant, and half the time the two gamblers just place their bets and stare away from the table, awaiting the bad news that almost always comes. At its end we have some hope for Jean and Jackie, with a fadeout that seems to be asking us to 'bet' on their chances as a couple.
Young Claude Mann is an interesting actor just as easy to watch as was Marc Michel in Demy's previous film Lola. The big attraction is Jeanne Moreau, however. Her Jackie is one of the few fully-realized 'adventuresses' in movies, the character that in American thrillers always comes off as some kind of femme fatale. It's fascinating to watch how Jakie operates and stays on top, with just a couple changes of clothing and a lot of nerve.
Wellspring's DVD of Bay of Angels is, like so many of their DVDs, a reasonable-to-good film element given a barely-adequate, unremarkable encoding for disc. The image is stabile, but edges are sometimes fuzzy and the picture lacks pop. It's anamorphic-enhanced and properly framed, so the result is fairly pleasing on a small set, but really breaks up on a large monitor. This Bay of Angels surely beats older VHS copies but can't compare to the better transfer standard seen almost everywhere else, from studios and independents.
The sound is fine, including the frequent bursts of Michel Legrand music that punctuate romantic moments. The extras include brief filmographies and an okay trailer, but the best is a short excerpt from Agnés Varda's docu The World of Jacques Demy relating to this title. Judging from this bit and the piece seen on the Lola disc, I'd like to see Ms. Varda's entire documentary show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bay of Angels rates: