Model Shop (1969), directed by Jacques Demy, is often overlooked as a mere curiosity of the late 60’s Californian culture with little cinematic effort, though in reality appears as a bold and original film to any film lover familiar with the director’s work. Eight years have passed since Demy’s feature debut Lola (1961) and now, in his first film made in the States, he returns to similar themes, story and even character. Although some arguments about the low productional quality — as if that meant something — dialogue and thinness of the subject in Model Shop may have a basis, it still stands out as a significant landmark in Demy’s oeuvre and one of the best American films made in the late 1960’s.
The beginning dolly shot seen during the opening credits immediately triggers associations to Lola: it is as if the camera was attached to a car while it records the stagnant life of an industrial area until it stops by a run-down shack, which could, in fact, be any building. Such imagery of roads and cars becomes the basic aesthetics of the film — part of the Demyan iconography.
As stated, Demy’s first American feature bears a striking resemblance to his debut made eight years earlier in France. One can be certain that he could’ve done any kind of film after the great success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). But instead he made a very different film compared to his biggest hits. In a word, Model Shop is a chamber drama whose events are placed in one whole day. It is an interior of a fleeting moment, implemented with a few characters and milieus in the kammerspiel tradition.
The central milieu of the film is Los Angeles which is portrayed from its poor periphery to the rich hills and crowded downtown. The periphery is the industrial area already portrayed in the first dolly shot. In fact, Model Shop begins and ends there — the landfill of the dream factory — where the misfits, the abandoned and the forgotten wait for their turn. The turn which will just be another setback.
Not surprisingly, such a milieu is perfect for a portrayal of alienation and frustration, but at the same time Demy seems to make an elegiac homage to the tradition (that is before the late 50’s) of American cinema — its hope, dream and, above all, great humanism. In the atmosphere, which Demy always creates with his tender touch, there is a strong sensation of departure — exodus — and hope for freedom, the fulfillment of dreams, provided by it.
Generally speaking, one of the things, or perhaps the only thing, from which Model Shop is recognized of is its period picture. The year is 1969. The United States started bombing Vietnam few years ago. One generation of young males have grown up, knowing that some day they will be called. At the same time while a war is being fought on the other side of the globe, the American society is going through a socio-cultural transition. Young women have liberated from the kitchen ages ago, hippies are everywhere, and drugs are used carelessly. Nonetheless, this generation feels numb, frustrated. It is no accident that such haste liberalization brought such loneliness with it.
From these social and current themes Demy creates a veritably personal film, studying individual personality and freedom. The protagonist, played by Gary Lockwood, is a young man who, among many others, waits for his call-up to the war. He is afraid. He is fresh from university where he studied architecture, but feels frustrated on the brink of despair in front of the commercial nature of the trade and, therefore is out of job. Soon the viewer learns that he began studying architecture because he wanted to construct. But now he has met the real world, face to face, and seen the world’s incomprehensible desire to destroy beauty. On the top of all this, he is distressed due to living in a futile relationship with an alien spirit. The viewer is constantly reminded that the protagonist is surrounded by nice and helpful friends, but something is missing — a meaning.
To add insult to injury, a debt collection agency threatens the protagonist of taking his car away in twenty-four hours unless he comes up with a hundred dollars. He borrows the money from a musician friend of his, but ends up spending them on a mysterious woman, played by Anouk Aimée. After following this woman, to whom he ran by blind chance, he finds out that she works in a model shop — a place where customers can come to take pictures of models in a private room.
Later on he returns to the same shop to take pictures of the same woman. He reveals himself in front of her, and at the backyard of the shop, surrounded by garbage, confesses his love only to receive an embarrased chuckle in return. The woman can’t believe him, although this is probably the only real moment in the artificial milieu of the unreal where they live.
In fact, all the characters talk very roughly, in a simple, clumsy manner. This has made the viewing experience rather unpleasant for many, but to me the dialogue appeared as deliberate and authentic. The characters express the frustration of a generation which ought not to be embellished. The town remains silent. No one can really say anything.
When it comes to the similarities between Lola and Model Shop, the most integral element is the title character. As a matter of fact, Model Shop can be taken as a “direct” sequel to Lola. In Lola the viewer observes the events from Roland’s perspective, a lonely man who is desperately in love with Lola. In Model Shop the viewer’s point of reference, the protagonist, is almost an identical character to Roland, but more importantly Aimée plays the exact same role of Lola which she did eight years earlier. The reference isn’t subtle, and there is no need for it to be. It is precisely direct and unambiguous, making it veritably poignant and an essential element in characterization.
Thus, the viewer is allowed to see what happened to Lola after she chose Michel and her son over Roland’s desperate passion. Eight years have passed. Now Lola has divorced from her husband Michel. She has lost everything. The promised American dream was never fulfilled. Instead of a cabaret, Lola now works in a model shop — the salon of loneliness — where men come to drown their loneliness, to experience intimacy, power and meaning.
It is intriguing to ponder why Demy chose the shop as the title of his film. My take on the subject is that the model shop is the plastic heart of the milieu. It is the climax of artificiality that surrounds. A sad game with its own pathetic rules. Above all, it is a place which embodies inertia. It exhales human languor and fatigue. And Lola is one of its fallen angels who have burnt their wings.
Striking is what time has done to Lola. Eight years have aged her terribly. Naivety and faith in goodness have been replaced by grief and maturity brought by disappointment. However, one shouldn’t think that time had aged the actor, Anouk Aimée, at least in a negative fashion. In fact, a year earlier in A Man and a Woman (1968) she was charming (probably the only good thing in the film). Hence, it isn’t really the time that has aged Lola, but despair and misfortune have drawn their mark on her face. Agony and suffering have given odd, extraordinary, unique beauty to her look.
As stated above, the film includes a strong sensation of departure. This is mainly contructed on the level of characterization, but Demy enhances the effect by dissolving the soundscape of the protagonist’s appartment to airplane noises. Humonguous crafts fly above his house. Every discussion, every dash of hope is about to sink into the unforgiving din of hurry, technology and departure. It is as if the noise suffocated us. Beside the emotion of exodus, the airplane sounds represent the new, alienated world where the protagonist — the current generation — can’t fit in.
To solve his financial problems, the protagonist borrows a hundred from a friend of his to pay the debt, but ends up spending the money to get near Lola. He goes to the model shop twice. After confessing his love and having sex with her, he gives away the last remnants of the borrowed money for Lola’s voyage — her departure for the indeterminate.
Although this romantic affair ended abruptly, the protagonist feels for the first time in his young life the possibility of happiness. It was brief, but rewarding. In fact, such an encounter between two lonely ones is an essential theme for Demy and can be found not only in Lola but also in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Bay of Angels (1963). Two lonely people, who haven’t met before, but share a bond, can truly help each other even if it seemed artificial as inclined in the confession at the backyard.
In the end, the protagonist returns to his home. A whole day of twenty-four hours has passed from the beginning of the film. His girlfriend leaves him and so does his car, but he doesn’t care. Demy ends the film with a close-up of the protagonist while he is calling to say goodbye to Lola. Unfortunately, he is too late. However, this isn’t important. There is an authentic feeling of a new beginning as the echoes of the protagonist’s words reach the spectator. At least he is a little happier even if absolute destruction and new disappointment waited at the end of the road.
Although there are arguably distinct connections between Demy’s films, he always finds something new every time. If Lola and Bay of Angels were about people who were unable to move forward despite the distressing shadow of departure cast on them, then Model Shop is, above all, a film about inertia. It studies existential fatigue, stagnation, and how to rise from its dreary abyss. In a detailed and honest fashion, Demy depicts human inertia which is a consequence of frustration, lack of love and all meaning. The characters are tired. They can’t keep up any longer, but still there echoes a quiet, suffocated faith in the possibility that at least one can try the capacity of one’s wings.