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In the late 60s, Jacques Demy abandoned the bright pastel worlds of Le Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles of Rochefort (1967) and turned a jaundiced eye upon the very real city of Los Angeles for the English-language Model Shop (1969). The film dispenses with the showmanship of Demy's musicals and opts for a languid, meandering "day in the life" narrative that is well-photographed and thematically unified, but suffers from stilted dialogue and wooden performances.
George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) is an aimless, unemployed wanna-be architect whose insipid starlet of a girlfriend, Gloria (Alexandra Hay), chases him out of the house one morning with a harangue about his lack of direction in life. With his car - a spiffy 30s-era MG, I think - under threat of repossession, George flees his Long Beach house and drives into the city in search of the $100 that will allow him to keep the car. George spends the day visiting friends and driving around the city. He borrows the $100, but proceeds to thoughtlessly fritter it away on little things, including the services of Lola (Anouk Aimee), who he first spots in a parking lot, and later on the street. He follows her to a "model shop," where men can hire models to pose for personal cheesecake snaps. George is entranced, going back to the model shop again and asking Lola to join him for a drink. With the Vietnam draft hanging over his head, he is looking for...something - something invested with meaning and passion. He bonds awkwardly with Lola, a French expatriate, who wants nothing more than to return to her native country and the young son she left behind. Ultimately, George and Lola's brief time together gives each a different kind of hope for the future.
Model Shop is an interesting, unusual film that plays with a lot of ideas, juggling them with relative ease. There is George, the embodiment of what Demy no doubt saw as the quintessential young Angeleno of the era; George loves Los Angeles, and feels a certain kind of freedom there. But it is freedom that comes at no cost, and this leaves George empty of emotion, passion, or drive.
Then there is the city of Los Angeles itself, a major character in the film - it is indeed the driving force behind it. And LA has never been better photographed than by Demy - the director wisely avoided famous landmarks and instead shot in the suburbs and city streets. The light, the endless streets, the low-slung buildings, and inflammable hillsides - it's all captured with beautiful accuracy. Even now, forty years later, Demy's LA feels current and real, and in many ways it is.
George drives a lot in Model Shop, which adds another acutely-observed dimension to the film. Everyone in Los Angeles - or anywhere in California for that matter - spends a lot of time in the car. Driving comprises a healthy portion of each day, and the culture of the road is hardwired into Angelenos like a sixth sense. George's leisurely automotive ambling serves as a visual manifestation of his metaphysical dilemma.
George's discovery of Lola is the film's core - he knows nothing about her, but senses that there's something important there, something worth being discovered. The scenes in Model Shop that are dialogue-free are the strongest - the photography, music, and slow pacing allows for an almost Antonioni-like meditative pleasure. You know that George is trying to figure something out, even though you're not sure what it is. And the desire to figure things out along with him is what maintained this viewer's interest.
But when dialogue is introduced - and traditional "acting" takes over - Model Shop becomes labored and obvious, bordering on the ridiculous. At times, I found myself wondering if this awkwardness, the unnatural actorly recitation of lines, was intentional. But I've thought it over, and I don't think that's what Demy was going for. The dialogue is simply bad - simplistically expository in the worst way. I'd blame the language barrier, but the English-language dialogue is credited to Adrien Joyce, a pseudonym for Carole Eastman, who was Oscar-nominated for her brilliant work on Five Easy Pieces (1970).
The poor dialogue goes hand in hand with some of the performances, notably those by Hay and Lockwood. Hay behaves as if she has no idea what to do - her character is asinine, but it's also played that way. Lockwood seems hampered somehow, as if he's being directed by a translator (I don't know if that was the case or not). He seems to understand the character, and his silent scenes come off well - and I don't mean to suggest that acting without speaking is easy. But the lines assigned to Lockwood don't help him in the dialogue scenes. At one point, during a frustrated phone conversation with his father, George says evenly, "Hey, anyway, this whole conversation is ridiculous. I just don't think we're ever going to be able to understand one another," and hangs up. All verbal communication in the film is this way - perfunctory and lifeless.
The climactic evening that George and Lola spend together feels much the same way. Throughout this sequence, Aimee delivers the movie's best acting by far, but the chemistry feels forced. As the film concludes, there is a moderate emotional payoff that Lockwood handles admirably. But it doesn't make up for the large handful of scenes leading up to it that don't play at all.
This is a single disc in a standard keepcase, and Sony has released it as part of their silly "Martini Movies" line. I am thankful that the studio has released some fantastic titles from their catalog under this line, and am happy to have them. I'm thinking of The New Centurions, The Anderson Tapes, and Our Man in Havana. But these titles all are deserving of more thoughtful releases, and none of them deserve the cheesy nonsense marketing ploy that is the "Martini Movies" line, which does nothing to enhance these films and in fact degrades them.
A totally acceptable anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is presented here. The film looks quite good for its age. Good production design and exceptional photography make the visual side of Model Shop appealing. LA's distinctive presence was captured ably by Demy and his team, and Sony has preserved it well.
The mono soundtrack is crisp. Presented in Dolby Digital, it sounds like some attention has been paid to cleaning it up and the results are naturalistic. Nothing fancy, but still a solid track.
Sadly, none except for the theatrical trailer, in keeping with the tradition of the "Martini Movies" releases. A recipe for something called the "Fountain of Youth Martini" is idiotically printed directly onto the disc.
Model Shop is an interesting movie that takes on some complex themes and ideas, but undermines them with poor dialogue that makes things tough on the actors. Worth seeing, but rent it.