Friday, November 6, 2015

#715: Bay of Angels

(Jacques Demy, 1963)

Demy's second film is more out of step with his subsequent musical rampage than Lola, though it shares a broad range of qualities with that debut. Like Lola, Bay of Angels is shot in black and white, sharply dividing it from the rest of director's catalog that is primarily known for its vibrant colors. But the film also features a milquetoast lead doomed to love a seductive woman who loves another - though in this case it's not a person. French coastal towns are seen. A happy ending is paired with the almost certain knowledge that it will not remain that way forever.

The similarities may end there, however, as Bay of Angels is a deeply sad film intently focused on two individuals. A third character sets the protagonist off on his path - and pops up again briefly just to assure us all that he was not a figment of our imagination - but other than that there are just a handful of characters with even one full scene. The only cycles in Bay of Angels are psychological, mistakes made over and over again to feed a sickness that overwhelms everything around it.

I'm not a gambler. It's perhaps the thing I know most about myself. I never make bets, I don't like going to casinos, I even feel uncomfortable putting my money in mutual funds. So the addiction of gambling is completely foreign to me. I've never been addicted to anything, but I've done drugs and can see the danger of getting sucked into the vortex, even with something as simple as coffee. My personal tendencies toward addiction are more harmless things like collecting (could you guess?), so seeing someone become addicted to gambling is, for me, a little like if someone told me they couldn't stop eating nails.

In a way, this made Bay of Angels even more sad. When you see someone succumb to a pleasure you understand, there's an immediate relatability. Outside of that appeal, you only see the disease, the empty routine of addiction. Jeanne Moreau's Jackie is a tragic figure whose life has disintegrated around her yet continues her descent. She's accepted her illness and seems unwilling to change it until the very final moment, which only feels unearned until you consider the dependency that addiction demands. Like Lola, Jackie knows what she wants and rejects the male protagonist's attempts to alter her desires. But Jackie's empowerment is empty, masking her weakness. Casting one of the all-time great movie stars in the role was a gamble in itself - we may immediately understand Jean's infatuation with Jackie but would we be able to see the fatalism through the bleached blonde glamour? Like Catherine in Jules et Jim, Jackie is trapped, but Moreau plays both characters without the rage that other women might have brought to the roles. Her tragedy is unknown to herself, even in self-reflective moments, because she seems to have so much control over herself. This is partially the character that Demy wrote, but it's mostly Moreau's dominance of the camera and complete confidence as an actress.

Her counterpoint in Claude Mann is less memorable, and here is where the film fails to live up to its predecessor. Mann has been in other strong movies (most notably Army of Shadows) and he looks a bit like a young Dominic West, but he lacks any real magnetism as a leading man. As I mentioned, Demy has created his second-straight boring young white guy protagonist here, but without the colorful secondary characters and plot complications of Lola, Bay of Angels suffers much more for it. The straightforward narrative here demands two memorable leads, and the lack of balance means Jackie as a character is significantly more notable than the film itself.

That being said, Bay of Angels is an entertaining movie even if it is pretty sad and at times hard to watch, though again that speaks to the strength of Moreau's performance. This Demy box is shaping up to be a real treasure.

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