Her name was Lola / She was a showgirl

"C'est moi, c'est Lola": Anouk Aimee in Lola (dir. Jacques Demy, 1961).

It’s a real shame that the recent attempt to restore Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961)—overseen by Demy’s son Mathieu—failed so miserably, as reflected in the dim, smeary Blu-ray edition of the film for Criterion’s otherwise exquisite Demy box set.  That’s because Lola is a poignant and underrated gem of French New Wave cinema, and a strong debut feature by Demy in which many of the filmmaker’s trademark themes—chance and fate, separations and reunions, and, of course, song and dance—are already in place.  Set in the quaint port town of Nantes (Demy’s birthplace), and enlivened by scenes at a cabaret where the title character works as a dancer entertaining American sailors, it has the effervescent charm that one associates with the early films of Truffaut and with Godard’s jauntier efforts, like Bande a Part (1964).  But it’s cut with the quiet melancholy that colors so many of Demy’s films, which resemble Shakespeare’s comedies in their recognition that a happy ending for one character usually creates an unhappy one for another.     

Lola becomes even more affecting when viewed back-to-back with Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).  Cherbourg having been a favorite film of mine since adolescence, I remember being stunned to re-encounter the character of Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) as the leading man in Lola when I saw it for the first time several years ago.  I was even more amazed to hear that Cassard’s musical theme from Cherbourg, composed by Michel Legrand, was already in place in the earlier film. 

The points of connection between the two films are more than superficial.  Demy uses the two films to show how the movements of various couples ripple out over time and space to determine the fates of others, and how every relationship is informed by the memory of past love affairs and missed connections.  Cassard’s relationship with Lola (Anouk Aimee), for example, is jump-started by good timing when he literally bumps into her on the street, only to be doomed by bad timing later when she reunites with her long-lost American lover and the father of her child.  Dejected, Cassard exits the film on his way to carry out some shady business involving diamonds in South Africa; when he turns up in Cherbourg, he has become a dealer in jewelry.  Has he come to Cherbourg on the hopes of re-encountering the young Cecile Desnoyers, the precocious teenage girl who he meets in Lola and who runs off there at the end of the film?  Cecile and her mother re-appear in Cherbourg in the form of Genevieve and Madame Emery; where Madame Desnoyers fails to snap up Cassard as a potential husband for her daughter, Madame Emery succeeds.  And there is a fatedness, too, in Cassard’s decision to marry the pregnant Genevieve; we learn that Lola’s lover left her single and pregnant, and that this has been a source of hardship for her.  Cassard “rescues” Genevieve from Lola’s fate, and in so doing prevents Genevieve from reuniting with the father of her child—as Lola eventually does.  

Roland Cassard at dinner with Cecile and Mme Desnoyers in Lola (top) and with Genevieve and Mme Emery in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (bottom).

Cassard’s shifting role in the two films also speaks to Demy’s philosophy of the illusion of agency and the capriciousness of fate.  A leading player in the story of his own life, Cassard is relegated to a supporting player in the story of Genevieve.  Even in Lola, his role is tenuous; initially he, not Lola, seems to be the focus of the film’s plot, but she is the figure with whom the film ends, and he’s last seen as a figure in her lover’s rear-view mirror.  In Cherbourg he ends up getting the girl; but his good fortune comes at the expense of Genevieve and her lover.  In the perpetually spinning love roundelay of Demy’s films, c’est la vie.

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