Just a few years after directing two of the greatest musicals ever made, French auteur Jacques Demy set his sights on the land that had pioneered the genre he so adored. Arriving in Los Angeles with his wife and fellow filmmaker Agnès Varda, Demy took as the subject of his first English-language feature the accelerating prevalence and importance of America’s agitated counterculture. Like others at the time, or still to come—Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Varda herself—Demy assumed the vantage of a regional, if not also cultural, outsider, and the resulting picture, his inordinately underrated Model Shop (1969), has the tone and style of drifting, moody transience, depicting an ethereal land of romantics and idealists with his own trademark charm and sincerity.
In writing about Model Shop for the Twilight Time Blu-ray, Julie Kirgo likens the film to Varda’s debut feature, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), which similarly, she says, centers on a protagonist “under terrible external pressure,” who spends “their allotted time wandering, searching for love and meaning in a frightening world.” “Frightening” might be pushing things a bit, but the world of Model Shop is rife with elusive social and political burden, and its central figure exists in a circuitous state of survival. Opening in a Venice Beach bungalow, a peculiar seaside home with incessantly pumping oil derricks pounding incongruously outside, the dreamy state of Model Shop is initiated, appropriately enough, as George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) wakes from his slumber. He has, his aspiring actress girlfriend Gloria (Alexandra Hay) remarks, been saying the word “love” in his sleep.
True or not, the observance suggests something about the film to come, its pensive progression and its undercurrent of unspoken, unrealized desire. It’s also an immediately realized counterpoint to what is actually a strained relationship between these two characters. They have been living together for more than a year but have reached an apparent stalemate. She wants marriage, but he says it’s an empty convention; she is open to having children, but he shirks the responsibility. Yet the problems are just getting started for George, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate who is also contending with a persistent finance company, a want of occupational prospects (likely his own doing), and the looming possibility of getting drafted into the Vietnam War. Occupying a home that trembles with the resounding pounds of machinery outside and escalating jets overhead, George and Gloria settle in for breakfast on their porch, an unremarkable part of their daily routine, but there persists the sense of forcing what isn’t there, adding to Model Shop’s subtle unrest.
As played by Gary Lockwood (Demy wanted Harrison Ford, but Columbia Pictures, banking on the trippy popularity of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, said Lockwood), George is disengaged and disaffected, though he is thoroughly enthralled by the city around him, saying he is moved by the geometry of Los Angeles (attesting to his architectural ambitions), commenting on its “pure poetry” and applauding its “harmony.” This impact is supported by Demy’s rendering of L.A., which is calm, quiet, and amenable, but the submission also rings with the outdated sound of a specific era speaking, much like Model Shop’s generally restless and indecisive disposition, epitomized by its tagline: “Maybe Tomorrow. Maybe Never. Maybe.” More resonant and always relevant are certain of George’s work-related sentiments, namely his disdain with having to wait 15 years to establish a professional reputation when he knows (or thinks) he is well qualified already.
Lockwood doesn’t offer much in the way of identification, such is the nature of George’s mild temperament, yet that banality leads to a strange curiosity when he is suddenly smitten by an enigmatic figure dressed in white and sticking out like an exotic sore thumb. This object of his fascination, whom he trails none-too-covertly in Hitchcockian fashion, is Cécile, played by the enchanting Anouk Aimée. Cécile entertains under the pseudonym Lola, a model in a tawdry photographic wonderland, which George promptly enters in order to gain access to this mysterious stranger. There, however, he is indifferent and callous, calling her work degrading, a “tart factory,” and as apathetic as their early encounters are, the developing relationship, and general interest in its advancement, proves tenuous at best. What is intriguing, especially for those familiar with Demy’s filmography, is Cécile’s backstory, as Aimée reprises her title role from the director’s 1960 film, Lola, and Model Shop further incorporates elements of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Bay of Angels (1963). The awkward courtship concludes in an equally fitful night together, featuring the most extended period of sustained acting in the picture. But even that descends into Cécile’s indolence —“Do I bore you?” she asks, her lethargy matching the tentative tenor of the film—and George’s quixotic lamentations—“Man’s only driving passion is to destroy,” he declares. Still, though it is fleeting, like killing time, their tryst is something definite to go on, for however long it lasts.
Demy also produced and wrote Model Shop, with some English language assistance from Carole Eastman, writing under the screen name Adrien Joyce. Perhaps owing to this linguistic disconnect, the film is unsettled, and the performances are frequently enacted with a far-out stammer, in stilted speech patterns that do, admittedly, enhance some of their wistfully existential musings (it’s easy to mock the characters and their hippie clichés, but they are unanimously helpful, hospitable, and sympathetic). Like a candy-colored time capsule, Demy absorbs an environment illustrated with distinctive clothes, décor, and music, and George’s meandering movements, roaming from place to place in search of a plot, contribute to a laid-back ambiance, open and easy and shuffling with Demy’s visual fluidity. A cloud hangs over the whole scene, though, a feeling (accurately, as it turned out) of being at the end of a social movement, or at least at a turning point. The specter of Vietnam haunts much of what George does, and while the tapestry of this world is one emblazoned with sex and drugs and flower power, it also appears increasingly unstable; in retrospect, the most tragic single moment in the film is when George and his friends discuss the war and speak of its imminent end, which, of course, was nowhere near the case.
One other aspect of Model Shop that has always stood out, despite its—or rather, her—scarcity, is the presence of Alexandra Hay, a captivating beauty and one of the era’s great, underused starlets. Demy described Hay as a “free bird” and compared her to Jeanne Moreau and Bette Davis. Lofty comparisons, to be sure, especially considering Hay’s lack of career to come (she was done acting by 1978), but it does testify to what is so evident in watching Model Shop today: her notable ebullience, which sets her apart dramatically from Lockwood. Set to star in a commercial for a “revolutionary new soap,” Hay’s Gloria observes, “Thank God I’m still pretty enough to be seen naked in a bathtub!”
Model Shop is an often-aimless feature, which is nevertheless part of its spellbinding appeal. And how well Demy’s episodic pacing, gripping and anxious as it is, ultimately translates into a conventional structure is debatable; it surely won’t satisfy all tastes. Rather like Hay herself, who isn’t effective in every regard—she’s not great playing upset, sad or angry, but she does quite well in a happy state—the 24 hours spent in Jacques Demy’s Los Angeles are engrossing and evocative, like a beguiling memory or photograph. It makes impression either way.