Film Review: Lola

Mr Bongo Films
DVD on release

By Guy Sangster Adams

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One year shy of half a century since its original release, Jacques Demy’s first feature film remains an enchanting cinematic experience. Starring the exquisite Anouk Aimée as the eponymous heroine, Demy dedicated the film to Max Ophüls, in whose last film, Les Amants de Montparnasse (1958), Aimée had also starred, and which is also dedicated to Ophüls as he died whilst it was being filmed. Though Lola also references Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, in which Marlene Dietrich plays Lola Lola, a singer at the titular cabaret. In Demy’s film, Lola is the name under which Anouk’s character, Cécile, performs, primarily to audiences of sailors, in a cabaret in the French Atlantic coast city of Nantes. In a stylistic reference to Dietrich’s character, Anouk’s Lola at times crowns the corset she performs in with a top hat.

Separate from her cabaret persona, Cécile is a single mother who yearns for the return of her first love, Michel (Jacques Harden), who she first met when she was fourteen and who is also the father of her son, but who left her just before she gave birth, promising to return when he had made his fortune. Demy explores his theme of first love and love lost, love requited and unrequited, and the element of chance that is present in love stories, interweaving the characters of Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), whose chance meeting with Cécile, with whom he was close when they were teenagers, reignites his sense of purpose and also his love at first sight for her, Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor, and Cécile Desnoyers (Annie Dupéroux).

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Anouk’s Cécile shares her bed with Frankie because in his uniform he reminds her of the first time she met Michel, who was also a sailor, at the fairground in the city. When the paths of Dupéroux’s Cécile and Frankie cross, and they two go to the fairground, it carries a wonderful timelessness, as though this could be a flash back of Cécile and Michel, the present moment with Cécile Dupéroux and Frankie, or a flash forward to the ‘first love’ that the burgeoning romantic Cécile Dupéroux is on the cusp of meeting. Wistful timelessness is key to the film as a whole and is part of the fantasy world that Demy created in his films, drawing inspiration from fairytales and musicals.

Music is also key to the film, from the opening frames of the film with the intentional old style Hollywood glamour of Michel’s return to Nantes in white Cadillac, white suit, and white Stetson juxtaposed with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, to the original music and songs composed for the film by Demy’s  lifelong collaborator, Michel Legrand.

But in honouring the beauty of this film one must also credit its superlative and legendary cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Whose work two years earlier on the first film of another Nouvelle Vague director, Jean Luc-Godard’s À bout de souffle, was both ground breaking and has proved enduringly influential. Just as Paris became another character in Coutard and Godard’s first collaboration, Nantes and the French Atlantic coast of Demy’s childhood, become an entrancingly well observed ‘character’ in  Lola. Not least the fluted columns, openwork balustrades, and cherubs of the Passage Pommeraye, a shopping arcade built in the 1840s.

At the end of Lola, three of the characters are on their way to Cherbourg, and one, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) would reappear in Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), which became the middle film of an informal ‘romantic trilogy’ which began with Lola and concluded with Les demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967.

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