Film Review: Model Shop (dir by Jacques Demy)

The 1969 film, Model Shop, plays out like a dream.

The film tells a simple enough story.  In fact, it’s tempting to say that Model Shop is plotless though it actually isn’t.  There’s a plot but, in many ways, the film is more about how the story is told than the story itself.  Gary Lockwood plays George Matthews, a former architectural student who is currently living in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Gloria (Alexandra Hay).  Gloria is an actress while George …. well, George is just a drop out.  Throughout the film, we get clues that George might have once cared about things (for instance, some of his friends are putting out an underground newspaper while another is into creating protest music).  However, by the time we meet him, George seems to be rather detached from life.  Of course, some of that may be due to the fact that, because he’s no longer in college, George is now eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.  (The film was made in 1969, after all.)  In fact, George has just received his induction notice.  He basically has a week left before joining the army.  At one point, in a flat tone of voice, he says, “It feels like a death sentence.”

Getting drafted is not George’s only problem.  He’s also about to lose his beloved car!  George has a day to come up with a few hundred dollars so he can keep his beloved green roadster from being repossessed.  (In George’s defense, it is a pretty nice car.)  While Gloria goes off to shoot a soap commercial, George spends his day driving around Los Angeles and searching for money.  George has a lot of friends but most of them are too busy making music and setting up love-ins in Griffith Park to help him out.  George doesn’t want to call his mother for the money and when he tries to call his father, he gets a lecture about how his older brother served in Korea.  No one is willing to make any sacrifices to help out George.  That may have something to do with the fact that George is, at times, a tad whiny and a bit self-absorbed.

It’s while wandering around Los Angeles that George spots the beautiful Lola (Anouk Aimée).  The glamorous but sad Lola works at a model shop, a sleazy establishment where men pay to take her picture.  Lola has a tragic story of her own, one that finds her stranded in Los Angeles.  It all leads to a brief romance that’s as bittersweet as ennui in May.

(Ennui in May is also the title of a musical that I’ve been writing, off-and-on, since 2012.  Keep an eye out for more details!)

Model Shop was the first (and only) English-language film of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and one reason that the film seems so dream-like is because Demy wrote the dialogue-heavy script in French and then had it translated into English.  As such, this is an extremely talky film in which no one ever seems to have a real conversation.  (It should also be noted that what sounds beautiful and poetic in French can come across quite differently in the harsher tones of the English language.)  George, Gloria, and Lola all speak in pedantic, declarative sentences.  There’s none of the individual verbal quirks or changes in tone that would make it seem as if these were people having an actual conversation.  As well, nobody ever talks over anyone else.  No one ever attempts to interrupt anyone else’s train of thought.  At times, it seems like the cast is performing under the influence of hypnosis and they’ve been told, “Do nothing while anyone else is speaking.”  It creates a rather odd atmosphere.

Also adding to the film’s dream-like feel is Jacques Demy’s direction.  The pacing feels just a little bit off.  It’s not so far off as to harm the film.  In fact, the fact that everything seems to be moving just a little bit slower than expected is actually one of the film’s biggest strengths.  If nothing else, it reflects George’s own feelings of being on borrowed time.  Beyond that, though, Demy often seems less like a director than an anthropologist.  A good deal of the film is simply made up of shots of George driving around Los Angeles and one gets the feeling that Demy was more fascinated with capturing the unique style of America than with telling George’s story.  Demy directs the film like an outsider looking in and, as a result, he often seems to focus on the details of daily life — like the television and the billboards and the red Coke signs hanging over every store window — that Americans takes for granted.  At the start of the film, the camera lingers over an oil derrick, as if Demy is looking at this symbol of Americana and looking for clues to understand what makes America what it is.  Much as Michelangelo Antonioni did when he made Zabriskie Point, Demy seems to be trying to use this film to solve the riddle of America and how Americans — even with the country embroiled in an unpopular war — could remain so youthful and optimistic about the future.  Unlike Antonioni, Demy seems to be more bemused than angered by America’s contradictions.  Anonioni ended Zabriskie Point by blowing up a luxury, mountain-side home.  One gets the feeling that Demy would have found the same house to be rather charming.

Of course, the late 60s were a time when Hollywood studios felt that they were under attack, not just from television but from foreign films as well.  With all the critics talking about European films were superior to studio films in every way and young filmgoers flocking to foreign films, it would only make sense that the studios would would bring filmmakers over from Europe.  For the studios, it was a chance to try to convince people that they weren’t run by out-of-touch dinosaurs.  For the filmmakers, it was a chance to try to capture and explain America on film.  The end results were mixed, with many of the directors — like Fancois Traffuat and Michelangelo Antonioni — later testifying to the difficulty of trying to work with an American studio while having a European sensibility.  This was also true of Demy, who never did another English-language film after Model Shop.  Reportedly, Demy wanted to cast an unknown actor named Harrison Ford as George but Columbia Studios demanded that Demy use Gary Lockwood.  (Lockwood, of course, is best known for not showing a hint of emotion, even while hurtling to his death, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Model Shop is definitely a film of it’s time, which is why I enjoyed watching it.  Yes, it’s pretentious and kind of silly.  But, at the same time, Demy is so fascinated with the Los Angeles of the late 60s that it’s hard not to share his fascination.  The film plays out like a dream of the past, like a time machine that puts you to sleep and then fills your head with images that you can see but you can’t quite reach.  It’s a time capsule, perfect for history nerds like you and me.

Someday, if films like Back to the Future and Happy Death Day 2U are any guide, we’ll have time machines and we’ll be able to personally experience the past.  Until then, we can watch films like Model Shop.