Monday 18 March 2013

1,001 Films: "Lola" (1961)

"In the cinema, things are always more beautiful." Though they may now appear less epochal, such statements - such sentiments - most likely seemed as radical to the young Turks of Paris and beyond, striving to pin down the cinema's place relative to reality, as anything hypothesised in Breathless. Yet where the encyclopaedically-minded Godard took it upon himself to be concerned with all cinema, Jacques Demy's particular field of interest was the swoony romantic melodrama, which - in Lola - he spliced into the nooks and crannies of his native Nantes, in the process fashioning real life into something perhaps more beautiful yet.

At the film's heart are a pair of childhood friends - possibly sweethearts - reunited in their twenties, and marked by experience in very different ways. Roland (Marc Michel) is a drifter and a dreamer; Cecile (Anouk Aimée) is now a cabaret dancer, stage name Lola, with a kid with an absent father. The movie radiates outwards, to show those characters this pair have touched one way or another - the sailor who's assumed Lola as his gal, the mysterious American driving around town in his Cadillac, the teenager seeking independence from her overbearing mother - and to show them bouncing around the streets like molecules. Some bond, some don't; to paraphrase the Chinese proverb with which the film opens, some come to laugh, and some will cry.

The element of reality that persists is key. Shot in monochrome on location by the great Raoul Coutard, it's a couple of productions - and towns - away from the candy-coloured musicals Demy would become best known for: even as they're drawn into a diamond smuggling plot, these characters feel like actual residents of this part of the world, who just happen to be undergoing a particularly intense couple of days. Demy already has Michel Legrand on side as musical director, yet Aimée burbles her way through the title number in the style of a performer who doesn't really want to be caught on film singing - an early indicator of this director's desire to do something unconventional with the way songs are sung on screen.

It's still tentative and experimental, and its ultimate success may depend on how charmed you are by Lola's flightiness (I wasn't, particularly), much as Jules et Jim stands or falls on how willing you are to be seduced by Jeanne Moreau; it's also the film that explains contemporary French cinema's wearying obsession with the blaring pomposity of Beethoven's Seventh, given full and repeated airing here. What impresses is the fledging director's control and balance: in its lightness of touch, this is unmistakably a New Wave venture, yet there are also hints of the emotional weight that Demy would later pick up around Cannes, Cherbourg and Rochefort - a recognition of how, for better and worse, we come to be shaped by the lives of others.

Lola is available on DVD through Mr. Bongo Films.

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