Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 6, 2014
“Cry who will, laugh who can.” So begins Lola; with this Chinese proverb that makes clear its intentions.
How does Jacques Demy’s Lola, released over a half-century ago, in 1961, still work its magic on me? Normally any kind of conceit involving a love triangle that includes one character who serves as a veritable knight in shining armor simply would not stand any chance of seducing me. Yet, despite some minor distractions (like an American soldier who speaks both his English and French lines with a jarring accent that doesn’t seem to belong to either language), the film has buoyancy and charm that never flag. It’s a pure delight, one that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.
A dedication to Max Ophüls screens alongside the opening title, and it makes Demy’s alignments clear. The fluid and beautiful camerawork that matches the ebullience of its star, Anouk Aimée, seems itself a knowing nod to Ophüls direction – something felt also in the circularity of the story and when the camera wheels around a carnival capturing a young girls first big crush. The fact that an adult sailor can put his arm around a 13-year-old girl as they enjoy one of the carnival rides and this does not illicit a deep sense of dread from the viewer is one of many testimonies to Demy’s gentle hand.
The camerawork (or “images,” as the French credits say in the film, and which more appropriately capture its poetic sense) by Raoul Coutard remain superb. The opulence of Ophüls gets stripped down to its basics using the natural beauty of a coastal town with elegant plazas. The awareness of the importance of iconography is still there, but more unplugged garage band than lavish orchestra. Either way, Demy, known as one of the more light-hearted of the French New Wave directors, is the right man to pick up the torch on behalf of romantics looking for a benign presence with a dab of chivalry.
The flirtatious early sixties vibe dovetails nicely with the poetic neorealism that Demy traffics in, and the energy of Lola has parallels to Ophüls La ronde (1950). But just because the terrain here brims with idealism and love, that’s not to say there aren’t setbacks along the way. For every winner that walks away from a love triangle, there is also a loser (in the case of Lola it’s the character played by Marc Michel). Ophüls, I imagine, must have felt it a setback when he released Lola Montes in 1955 and the film was deemed a commercial failure. (An understatement: it led to the bankruptcy of the once powerful Gamma Company.) Adding insult to injury, Lola Montes would only be available in a severely butchered version until the sixties, although Ophüls would be unaware of that duration due to his passing away about two years after the film’s release in 1957.
Love, however, came around to conquer adversity when several proponents (including Andrew Sarris) would come to the rescue of Lola Montes and help release an uncut version in the sixties (I’m unclear on the dates, as IMDB lists the restored versions release date as 1969, but Roger Ebert notes seeing it at the New York Film Festival in 1963). More recently, Lola Montes got serious love from Criterion when it was released on Blu-ray in 2008. Demy’s Lola, however, is still awaiting a high-definition make-over. Give it time. Be an idealist. Believe in love. Hopefully, it will happen.
For more selling points for Lola consider this: crisp black-and-white anamorphic views of Nantes, France, where twisty corridor steps are boxed in by towering walls and beset with bannisters for the drunk sailors to slide down like children in play. The soundtrack announces itself as unique from the get-go as it balances Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Weber, Marguerite Monnot, and even one cut of “Chanson Lola” by Demy’s colleague, also a gifted director, and on/off romantic partner Agnès Varda (they were married, separated for a bit in the 80′s, and Demy’s loss when he died of AIDS had a way of focusing attention on the precious things we still have in grasp).
All things are precious that live and die, but in today’s world it seems like too many superfluous films live on indefinitely via a variety of platforms that now absorb all our time. Meanwhile, gems like Lola slip by unless noticed by the few paying attention to films of a different time and place. Specifically; films of love, by those who loved film, and loved differently than most of us today.
Lola screens on TCM on April 10th, and Lola Montes screens on April 20th.
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