Bittersweet Poetry

Bittersweet Poetry

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 11th 2019

Following the film’s New York premiere a half-century ago today, the New York Post’s Archer Winsten would report: “Model Shop [1969] is an American-made film, firmly rooted in Los Angeles but written, directed and produced by Jacques Demy, the youth who made Lola [1961] and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964]. He looks over the city from a high place and considers it poetry.” Indeed, as any visitor on vacation in a locale with a personalized dreamlike appeal would take snapshots, Demy deployed his movie camera and keen instinct for romantic filmmaking to depict a City of Angels that, like the story’s two lead lovers – an unfulfilled architect (Gary Lockwood), facing a breakup with his current flame and the arrival of a draft notice that could foreshadow Vietnam War deployment, and an enigmatic immigrant beauty named Lola (A Man and a Woman [1966] star Anouk Aimée) working as a photographic model to make money to return home to her native France – was at a crossroads. Across the urban sprawl of neighborhood streets and cruising car traffic, they connect, and though it proves ultimately transitory, it also becomes tenderly transformative. “Demy pictorially defines Los Angeles in a series of loving, nightmarish explorations of that solid-state grid of boulevards, parking lots, two-story loft buildings, drugstores, supermarkets and beach houses,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, and the convergence of geography, both familiar and exotic, and the mysterious attraction of wayward drifters exerts a hypnotic pull. “Demy captures the look and feel of the American scene…L.A. has never been so rhapsodically photographed [by Michel Hugo]. The entire treatment is lyrical and bittersweet,” Saturday Review’s Arthur Knight affirmed. 

But before the critics (mixed on the whole) and audiences (sparse at the time) weighed in, Demy made his intentions clear in a Los Angeles Times interview: “I came here for a vacation, not to make a movie. But I fell in love with L.A. I just had to make a film. It’s so marvelous. When I left Paris it was dead. Now I’ve missed the revolution and everything. But I had been so depressed, so discouraged. I said I must go someplace where something's happening. I don't want to be pretentious but I want Model Shop to be Los Angeles, 1968 – like Rossellini's Europa ’51. Lola is a very small part. She ties the story together. Everything is like a puzzle: it fits together. I want to forget Cherbourg, [The Young Girls of] Rochefort. I've gone as far as I can with that. I needed another language, new problems. This won’t be a Hollywood movie. I told them I like to shoot on location, use real people whenever possible. The soundstage, big stars, big budget – I wouldn't enjoy that. I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. L.A. has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.” Featuring an Isolated Music Track of jazz-inflected rock stylings, both songs and instrumentals, by Los Angeles-based group Spirit and car-radio samplings of classical pieces by Bach, Schumann and Rimsky-Korsakov, Model Shop is a singular, soulful snapshot of a time and place, still fascinating at 50, that’s worth a drive-by on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.