Los Angeles has served as the backdrop for countless Hollywood movies but in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), the French director’s first and only American film (if you don’t count the 1984 made-for-TV movie Louisiana), the city becomes the real protagonist. With its sprawling urban landscape, oil derricks, desolate beaches and constant traffic, it provides a vivid canvas for a contemporary love story about romantic longing, missed connections and unrealized dreams. Film writer Clare Stewart referred to the film in the film journal Senses of Cinema as “a road movie that doesn’t go anywhere” but that’s not a putdown. It’s an apt description of what Demy was trying to create here – a drifting, dreamy mood piece.
Covering a twenty-four hour period in the life of George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), an unemployed architect stuck in a dead end relationship with an aspiring actress (Alexandra Hay), the film tracks George’s attempt to raise enough money to prevent his car from being repossessed but switches gears when he catches sight of a strikingly beautiful woman, dressed in white, at a car lot. Intrigued, he begins to follow her around the city, eventually arriving at her place of employment, a “model shop” where men pay to photograph women in a choice of intimate settings.
Lola (Anouk Aimée), a recently divorced French woman with no work permit, is working there until she can raise enough money to purchase air fare back to Paris. Like two ships passing in the night, Lola and George have a brief but fateful encounter that alters their destinies in subtle but possibly profound ways.
Demy, who paid homage to the Hollywood musical with his award-winning The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), was offered a contract by Columbia Pictures in 1967 to make films in America. Arriving in Los Angeles with his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda, he considered various projects before choosing Model Shop (he originally wanted to call the film, Los Angeles-1968). In the meantime, Varda filmed the short subject, Black Panthers (1968), and an experimental feature, Lions Love (1969), starring Andy Warhol actress Viva, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado, the latter two actors recruited from the Broadway musical Hair.
Demy’s first choice for the lead in Model Shop was Harrison Ford (you can view snippets of his original screen test for the role on YouTube) but Columbia executives pressed the director to choose a more established actor – Gary Lockwood, who had recently appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – over the relatively unknown Ford.
With the uncredited assistance of Carole Eastman (who often wrote under the screen name of Adrien Joyce), Demy penned the English-language screenplay, which avoids the volatile politics of the era but still captures the general sense of malaise and restlessness of the time with fleeting references to the Vietnam War and the counterculture (a rehearsal session with the rock group Spirit and George’s visit with the editor and staff members of “The Paper,” an underground publication).
Unfortunately, neither Model Shop nor Varda’s American-made films were successful with critics or at the box office and the couple soon returned to France where they resumed their solo directorial careers. Yet, in the case of Demy’s Model Shop, the movie was not a radical departure from his previous work and continued his persistent theme of the elusive nature of love and the endless quest for it.
Despite the film’s American setting, Model Shop references and incorporates characters and aspects of Demy’s earlier work beginning with his debut feature, Lola (1961), in which Anouk Aimée played the title role. Her Lola in Model Shop is clearly the same character (we see photographs of her from that 1961 film in an album at her apartment), only she is now older, divorced, and with a fourteen-year-old son awaiting her in Paris. We also learn that her companion Michel (Jacques Harden in Lola) has run off to Las Vegas with Jackie, the seductive gambler of Demy’s Bay of the Angels (1963), who was played by Jeanne Moreau. Another link to the past is provided by Lola’s comment that her American sailor friend Frankie (played by Alan Scott in Lola) has been killed in Vietnam.
On both a visual and conceptual level, Model Shop is spellbinding, presenting Los Angeles as a cityscape of neon signs, billboards, Standard Oil gas stations, parking lots and people constantly in motion, driving to and fro in cars, chasing unobtainable dreams in the film capitol of the world, a place where cinematic dreams are the main export. Cinematographer Michel Hugo applies a palette of pastel colors to Los Angeles that brings a dreamlike gloss to even the pollution, industrial plants and urban sprawl of the city. The sound design of the film is equally evocative, blending the ambient hum of traffic with an eclectic mixture of music being broadcast from George’s car radio (Bach, Rimski-Korsakov, Spirit, Robert Schumann).
Model Shop is much less successful in building dramatic interest in the free-form narrative and what happens to both George and Lola due to uneven performances and awkward dialogue. Gary Lockwood, 32 years old at the time of the film, seems miscast as a disenchanted 26-year-old who is too impatient and unwilling to follow the traditional career path for architects. His scenes with Alexandra Hay, playing his girlfriend Gloria, are so strained and unnatural that you can never really fully accept them as a couple who were once in love or even enjoyed a mutual sexual attraction. Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps their lack of on-screen chemistry together is meant to emphasize the fact that they’ve become complete strangers but on a dramatic level, their scenes are inert.
Even more ineffective are Lockwood’s interaction with his friend, band musician Jay Ferguson of Spirit (playing himself and not doing a very convincing job), and his occasional philosophical musings, such as his realization that he could die if he’s drafted: “I guess I never really thought about it before. Death, you know – it’s insane!” Even Anouk Aimee, who retains her elegance and an air of mystery throughout, is saddled with some pretentious dialogue and, in one scene, where she is reciting her long, personal history to George, interrupts herself by asking him, “Do I bore you?”, as if signaling the viewer to overlook the exposition in favor of the real story, which Demy has visualized perfectly.
Model Shop was obviously not a standard commercial feature but clearly art house fare as noted by its obtuse tag line, “Maybe Tomorrow. Maybe Never. Maybe.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that it was “really quite a bad movie, but also a sometimes interesting one. You aren’t likely to forget – immediately anyway – a movie in which someone speaks of the “Baroque geometry” of Los Angeles. I know I won’t.” And Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, never a very ardent Demy supporter, wrote, “There’s something ingratiating about Demy’s romantic and lyrical approach to L.A., but his way of looking at American youth is insane…The picture is very pretty, but numbingly superficial.” Variety, on the other hand, was more perceptive, stating, “There is not much story here, but rather a revealing series of incidents that serve as a backdrop for a poetic tale of human disarray, fleeting comprehension and a surface gentleness that belies an underlying discontent and groping for meaning, love and aim by its disparate but well mimed characters.”
Yet, despite its poor initial reception and quick fade into obscurity, Model Shop is now considered one of Demy’s finest films by contemporary film critics and admirers such as Armond White of the New York Post who wrote that “Model Shop is a post-masterpiece, elaborating Demy’s own expressive vocabulary – making his imagination real, fulfilling that now-forgotten New Wave decree that movies be taken seriously as emotion pictures…Going back to Model Shop could help modern movies rediscover love.”
Model Shop is currently available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of their branded series, “Martini Movies,” which is a laughably inept attempt to market this film. One look at some of the other titles in the “Martini Movies” franchise – Gumshoe with Albert Finney, Arch Oboler’s Five, Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana – reveals an eclectic grab bag of quirky but intriguing films that defy clear cut genre categorization or obvious marketing hooks which is why they have been lumped together as a branded collection. Of course, I am glad that Model Shop is available for Demy fans but it would have been an ideal addition to the Criterion Collection’s recent box set, The Essential Jacques Demy, which includes Lola, Bay of the Angels and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all of which tell Lola’s story in direct and indirect ways. (For example, in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), we discover through a song that Roland, a former lover (played by Marc Michel in Lola) is now a Parisian antique dealer.) Model Shop has previously aired on Turner Classic Movies and, with a little luck, it may show up again someday.
* This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on TCM.com
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