Thursday, November 5, 2015
Lola is the first film both in Criterion's boxset of Jacques Demy's core early films and of the director's overall filmography. Built with overlapping stories of relationships both emotional and fleeting, the film straddles the many worlds of French cinema. At times it seems like a quaint relic of the French system, a light and occasionally Soapy romance of criss-crossed lovers. Other moments feel like kin to the New Wave classics being made at the same time, in love with movies and reality in equal measures. The film recalls Ophuls (to whom it is dedicated) as often as it predicts Jeunet. It hints at the darkness of his next film, Bay of Angels, as easily as it predicts his technicolor-splashed later work. It manages to feel playful without resorting to comedy and tragic without delivering bad endings for its characters. I think it's an undersung masterpiece.
The story of Lola isn't much of one at all, as simple coincidences give way to poignant exchanges of love both sexual and familial. Characters remind characters of other characters, cities pop up in the past, future, and fantasies of various people who are unaware of the connections they share. The nature of the city of Nantes is reflected in the various players, constantly coming and going - when they are there, they want to leave, when they are away they wonder when they will return. The movie is at once as fantastical as a David Lynch movie (is Cecile perhaps literally Lola, whose real name is after all Cecile?) and as humanistic as a Marcel Carne melodrama. Frankie, one of the sailors that defines Nantes as a constant state of flux, sleeps with Lola but bonds with Cecile, who reminds him of his sister. Roland pines for Lola, whose heart belongs to Michel, but desires to flee to an island in the South Pacific, where unbeknownst to everyone Michel has made a fortune. The plot doubles back on itself frequently and revolves around a cafe where Roland lounges with a painter - it's apparent that the film had a huge influence on Amelie.
All of these elements make Lola a joy to watch. There's a certain feeling of serendipity and a charmed melancholy that Demy is able to deliver here that is almost never present in a director's debut. His work is not as stylized as Wes Anderson's - though simultaneously more about movies than the younger director - but the combination of a breezy tone and deep sadness is shared by the two filmmakers. It's much more in line with Truffaut's elemental 400 Blows than the aggressive newness and removed cool of Breathless, but it has none of the animosity toward conventional (or maybe safe) filmmaking that both directors had in their earliest work. A casual viewing of Lola would do fine, which ironically is perhaps what has made its place in history less noted than its contemporaries.
But dig a little deeper and what's here delivers elements that reward investigation and reflection. Lola is a powerful woman, perhaps saddled with the cliche dancer/seductress role so overused in film but defiant in her self-sufficiency. Anouk Aimee is both perfectly cast and perfect as Lola, to the point where she seems as inseparable from the character as the character feels separated from the world of the movie. Demy's deliberate technical flaws are also gems waiting to be reevaluated for their influence on future filmmakers, their own small ripple in the torrent of New Wave's storm. Then there is Nantes itself, shot as sleepy and wild, a temporary town of fairs and dances and markets where scheming smugglers hide, as mysterious as Casablanca but without the wartime tension, so people and things and ideas and love flow freely through its ports. The city is just as much the star of Lola as Lola, and it makes the movie feel just as alive and magical now as it must have felt fifty years ago.