Wives, Girlfriends, and First-Generation Jets
La Peau Douce and Airport
No two movies are more enjoyable to compare and contrast than François Truffaut’s La Peau Douce (1964-The Soft Skin) and George Seaton’s Airport (1970). One is an intimate drama and the other is an all-star disaster feature, but they happen to have a lot in common.
All the male leads (Jean Desailly in Peau, Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin in Airport) are professionally successful married men in their forties. Desailly and Lancaster are fathers. Martin is not (yet). The three wives are all beautiful in contrasted ways. Nelly Benedetti in Peau is warm, intense, and sexually demanding. So is the more chilly Dana Wynter, but that is because her husband Burt Lancaster’s focus on his work has led her to look for passion elsewhere. Good sport Barbara Hale has a philosophical and forgiving outlook when it comes to husband Dean Martin’s infidelities.
The three mistresses are also an interesting lot. The two stewardesses, Françoise Dorléac in Peau and Jacqueline Bisset in Airport, are gorgeous, malleable up to a point, and self-absorbed. The executive, Jean Seberg, is much less attractive (with high hair that make her look short and an ugly wardrobe). A widowed career girl, she makes one mistake after another, whereas the two stewardesses are poise personified and display grace under pressure.
The Airport couples are already broken up and redistributed as the movie begins, but the affair in Peau starts with the movie, through furtive glances aboard a stylish, near-empty Panair do Brasil DC-8. Desailly and Dorléac spend their first date in a Lisbon restaurant talking about Balzac until dawn. This is amazing in itself: one cannot imagine Martin and Bisset ever having read a classic. As to Lancaster and Seberg, their not-yet-consummated love is entirely based on work.
Many would expect a French nouvelle-vague film to be more permissive than a big-budget American blockbuster, but that is not the case here. Or maybe the difference comes from the tectonic shift in screen morals between 1964 and 1970. In any case, the errant French husband gets dropped by his girlfriend when she realizes how sordid their situation is. Moments later, as he tries to reconnect with his wife (who has debased herself, begging for his return), she catches up with him and shoots him dead in a restaurant with a rifle.
Pilot Dean Martin is shaken when girlfriend Bisset announces her pregnancy to him, and he gets advice from the Catholic co-pilot with seven children of his own, not all planned. By the time the crippled airliner lands, Martin is strongly committed to the badly hurt Bisset and does not even notice his own wife, whose kindness and patience are repaid with shocking indifference.
The case of Lancaster is possibly the most predictable, with a minor but nasty sting in the tail when it comes to Seberg. After his gorgeous but castrating and shallow wife storms out, he is free to sample Seberg’s scrambled eggs which, it is made clear, she has offered to him more than once previously. The movie ends with the message that Seberg will attain, via her eggs, the womanhood she failed to achieve via her career.
Muriel ou le temps d’un retour (1963) is the third full-length feature by Alain Resnais, following Hiroshima mon Amour and L’Année Dernière à Marienbad. Muriel does not have the reputation of its two predecessors, yet I can’t think of a single movie that has impregnated me so durably. I laughed at it as a teen, taken aback at some of its odd rhythm, its jumps, and its score. But now that I am old, after many viewings, I find myself reciting lines of the dialog to myself, almost on a daily basis. No film is more important to me.
Hélène is a widow who sells antiques from her apartment in Boulogne (a town freshly reconstructed after being bombed during WWII). She lives with her skittish stepson, Bernard, who may have powerlessly witnessed the torture of a girl named Muriel during his stint in the Algerian War. Hélène receives the visit of an old beau, Alphonse, who brings along his “niece” Françoise without notifying Hélène. Hélène is barely aware that Alphonse is broke and that Françoise is his lover, not his niece.
Delphine Seyrig as Hélène plays a character at least 10 years older than she was at the time. Her performance is a tour de force. Ever the gracious hostess, she puts up her guests with apparent insouciance while her heart is perceptibly breaking. Like an early-onset dementia patient, she keeps revisiting, always uncertain, the specifics of her long-ago love with Alphonse. But this is not a film about memory loss, it is about the very nature of memory. She is certain of nothing. Instead, she narrates the past in the conditional tense: “We could have sailed away to Africa…”
Hélène has a matter-of-fact lover in town, probably married, with whom she spends one evening a week – leaving her guests behind. She also goes gambling regularly and joylessly. Bernard grows impatient with the visitors and retreats to a half-bombed shed where he keeps mementos of the Algerian War. Alphonse is eventually unmasked as a crook, his wartime claims exposed as fakes by his brother-in-law.
The modernist score by Hans Werner Henze and the spiky short shots bring on a feeling of dread – in spite of lighthearted moments and even a few jokes. Muriel presents France at a turning point. This is the France where I grew up, where horses could be seen in the streets but where appliances and modernization took society by storm. After two ugly wars during which ordinary French people were humiliated, some collaborated with the invader, and a few engaged in abominable human right violations, France needed to forget and move forward along a shiny, enameled path. Accordingly, a van is heard at several points during the movie, with loudspeakers blaring: “Participate in our competition, the future belongs to you.”
France has mostly come to terms with its past since Muriel was released, but its penchant for reality-avoidance is ingrained. How else do you explain Picard, the antiseptic, otherworldly and highly successful chain of frozen food outlets, thriving in a country where fresh, high quality and emotion-charged food is most readily available?
5 et Demy
Lola, La Baie des Anges, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Model Shop
Between 1961 and 1969, Jacques Demy directed his first 5 movies, and they constitute a marvelous oeuvre. They share stylistic and thematic threads, which is unsurprising, but they also have plots that are tangentially related to one another in a most fascinating and unique way. Each film is independent and can be enjoyed on its own, but they gain scope when you know them all. Model Shop is mostly interesting as the postlude of the series, to which it would make a poor introduction indeed. The theme of all 5 movies is the risk of losing one’s chance at a great love through bad luck or bad timing. The first 4 benefit immensely from their music score by Michel Legrand.
Lola may be the most assured film debut of all times. Demy had made several shorts previously, and his style is thoroughly established from the first frames of Lola. It does not feel like an “early” masterpiece, but like masterpiece altogether. Roland Cassard is a young dreamer, full of yearnings but without an outlet. In Nantes, he reconnects with a past girlfriend, Lola, who is a night club entertainer and a single mother. Michel, the father of her little boy, left France a few years previously (unaware she was expecting), promising to return after having made his fortune. Lola and Roland renew their friendship, but her heart belongs to Michel.
Roland becomes acquainted with another single mother, the very proper Madame Desnoyers, and her precocious daughter Cécile. One of the patrons at Lola’s cabaret is an American sailor, Frankie, who also befriends little Cécile – to her mother’s alarm. Madame Desnoyers explains to Roland that her late husband, who left her destitute, was a gambler and that he wasn’t Cécile’s father. Roland impulsively becomes a courier for a diamond smuggling ring. Eventually Michel returns, his fortune made, plucks Lola out of the cabaret and drives away with her and their little boy in an American convertible.
La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels)
After a dazzling credit sequence, we are introduced to a square young bank teller, Jean Fournier, who is initiated by a colleague into the world of gambling. In a casino near Paris, the two friends witness the disturbing spectacle of a glamorous blonde being banned from playing by the staff. In spite of his father’s stern warning, Jean keeps gambling, wins a little money, and goes to spend a weekend in Nice. There, he encounters the blonde, Jackie Demaistre, and they spend mad days of love and nights of roulette, winning and losing fortunes. Along the way we find out that Jackie has a husband who will not tolerate her addiction, and that she has lost custody of her son. Although the film glamorizes casinos and roulette wheels, its message is that life itself is a game of chance. Jeanne Moreau, at the cusp of maturity, looking wonderful one minute but ravaged the next, keeps one’s attention riveted in spite of the near weightlessness of the material.
The plot link between Lola and La Baie des Anges will only become visible in Model Shop.
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (the Umbrellas of Cherbourg)
Roland Cassard encounters another mother and daughter, Madame Emery and her beautiful teenage daughter Genevieve. Down on their luck, they are selling jewels to make ends meet. Captivated by the near-silent Genevieve, Roland helps them out. Genevieve isn’t interested in the now older diamond trader: her boyfriend is a poor mechanic named Guy. He lives with his godmother Élise, who has raised him and a close friend, Madeleine, almost as brother and sister.
Guy is drafted into the Algerian War for two years. He and Genevieve spend one night together before he leaves, a parting that is very painful for both of them. Genevieve is soon pregnant, with no news from Guy. She succumbs to her mother’s kind but relentless pressure, and accepts Roland’s proposal of marriage. Roland promises to raise the baby as his own, and he takes Genevieve to Paris.
Guy, back from the war, spends some months in a deep depression, but eventually recovers with the support of the patient and loving Madeleine. With Élise’s inheritance, they buy a gas station and start a family. One Christmas Eve, Genevieve drops in to fill her tank, with her little girl in tow. Genevieve and Guy spend an awkward moment together before parting forever. Les Parapluies was Demy’s biggest hit, and it is enchanting from beginning to end. The final scene still packs a wallop after many viewings and half a century.
In addition to the strong supporting role given in Parapluies to Roland Cassard (the male lead role in Lola), there is another probable connection: Genevieve has an unseen friend named Cécile, who provides her with an alibi when she goes out to dance the mambo with Guy. According to some small talk during the late night dinner scene in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, this Cécile might well be the little Cécile who left Nantes in a hurry with her mother at the end of Lola. She would be the right age to be friends with Genevieve.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (the Young Girls of Rochefort)
Yvonne Garnier is a mod, youngish widow who owns and operates a French fries restaurant on the main square in pastel-colored Rochefort. Her daughters are saucy fraternal twins Delphine and Solange, and her younger son is Boubou. The twins, a dancer and a composer, have dreams of moving to Paris. Among Yvonne’s clients is a dreamy sailor and painter, Maxence. He has never met Delphine, but he has dreamed of her and painted her likeness. Solange, the composer, is friends with Simon, the owner of the local music shop.
Itinerant dancers descend on the town for a carnival, and they enlist the twins to sing at their outdoor concert. Andy, a famous American composer, is also in town to visit his friend Simon. He literally bumps into Solange and they fall in love at first sight. The night before the concert, Yvonne and her children have dinner with an old friend, Subtil Dutrouz, who tells them briefly the whereabouts of Madame Desnoyers and Cécile (from Lola). The day after the concert, Simon realizes he is the twins’ father and is reunited with Yvonne. In the heart-tugging final seconds of the film, Maxence finally meets Delphine.
Les Demoiselles is almost entirely a delight, but it doesn’t hold together like Lola or Parapluies. The whole carnival sequence is stretched too thin, unfortunately, and the twins’ big song is a letdown (compared to the witty song with which they open the movie). Equally damaging are ugly wigs and awful hats for the twins. Hyped as can be, the movie did not garner the critical or commercial success of Parapluies. I remember it well: it was as if people had cried so hard at Parapluies that they vowed to stay away from the frothy promise of Demoiselles. Obviously, the gruesome death of its leading lady Françoise Dorléac at the time of the release contributed to the clouded reputation of the film. All in all, Demoiselles was the end of Jacques Demy’s prime, just as Parapluies had been its summit.
Although the visual link between Parapluies and Demoiselles is strong (not to mention the ethereal presence of Catherine Deneuve in both films), the only plot connection between Demoiselles and the others is the tenuous recollection of Madame Desnoyers during the dinner scene.
Nantes, Nice, Cherbourg, Rochefort… Los Angeles. George Matthews is a young man living aimlessly: he is in the process of separating from his shallow girlfriend, and only one payment away from having his vintage sports car repossessed. Not willing to call his conservative parents for help, he is desperate for money and borrows some from friends. He accidentally starts following a captivating woman who is none other than Lola, a Lola robbed of most of her vivaciousness and joie de vivre. Elegant but almost destitute, she works as an hourly model in a studio where gentlemen take suggestive photos of women. She is saving money slowly for her ticket back to France. George and Lola begin an abortive relationship over the course of one evening, and he gives her the money he borrowed earlier. Vietnam has replaced Algeria as the war that interferes with young men’s plans, and George receives his draft notice. George realizes too late that he loves Lola. While his car is towed away, he tries to call her but she’s already gone.
Model Shop was such a bomb that the film became quasi unavailable for decades. Today, it can be seen as a failed but interesting experiment, hampered by slow pacing and a laconic performance by Gary Lockwood. But the moody Los Angeles locations, the expressive use of traffic, and the luminously sad Anouk Aimée make it worth a look. Like all the films above, it ends superbly.
Jacques Demy directed several more movies before his death, but he never regained his touch (none of his late movies made allusions to Lola or Roland Cassard). No matter, the movies from the first half of his career have made him a legend among French movie lovers.
Model Shop ends inconclusively for Lola: she fades out of the movie on her way back to France. Earlier on, during a monologue of hers, we find out that Michel, her great love and husband, has left her for the predatory Jackie from La Baie des Anges, taking their son with him to Las Vegas. We also find out that Frankie the sailor was killed in Vietnam.