If French writer-director Jacques Demy is less well-remembered than many of his New Wave contemporaries, it may be because he specialized in the kind of rose-tinted romance that seems almost instantly dated. His best-known film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), survives as an oddity of great charm, much of its appeal arising from the presence of Catherine Deneuve and Michel Legrand’s melodic if somewhat repetitious nonstop score. Lola, his 1960 feature debut, is also graced by some Legrand music (including the frequent use of a theme that would reappear in Cherbourg), as well as appealing natural-light cinematography by Raoul Coutard. Still, its charm is intermittent and its central character a little annoying.
One can see how Lola, as played by Anouk Aimée, is meant to be endearing. But with her period (early ’60s) get-up signifying “good-time girl” (more make-up than a drag queen) and her stereotypical “girlish” babbling, it ain’t happening for this viewer. Lola is being courted by an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott, speaking French with a tremendously bad accent, even for an American) and a boyfriend from her past, Roland (Marc Michel), while waiting for her long-gone husband to reappear And you have the feeling he will. Frankie and Roland are also connected by their surprisingly noncreepy friendship with a 14-year-old girl (Annie Duperoux), the daughter of a middle-aged ex-dancer called Mrs. Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette).
It’s all very slight, but not without interest. Demy takes a semidocumentary approach to his beloved Atlantic coastal town of Nantes and there’s an off-the-cuffness to the narrative which is probably the result of budget restraints combined with New Wave audacity. There’s also the barely developed but still resonant idea that Lola, Mrs. Desnoyers and her daughter are the same woman at three different stages in her life, somehow existing simultaneously.
And, finally, there’s the bravura sequence toward the end where an egregiously improbable denouement — like something out of the movies — plays out against the strains of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. You can’t tell if the match of silly plot and somber music is a miscalculation or Demy being impish. Probably a little of both.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].