By Jeffrey M. Anderson
The great French New Wave director Agnes Varda (The Gleaners and I) happily continues to restore her late husband Jacques Demy's classic films to the big screen. She scored major triumphs recently with restorations of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and she continues with this week's release of Bay of Angels (1963), opening today at the Castro Theater for a week's run -- and with Lola (1961) to follow April 12 at the Lumiere.
Demy (1931-1990) was never considered a forerunner of the New Wave -- his work was too light and entertaining for that. Even the New Wave work ethic, which routinely found art in entertainments, was unable to save Demy from this fate. But seeing his films now, it's clear that Demy had his feet planted firmly on the ground. Within his lightweight tales is a clear-eyed worldview rooted in the irony that sometimes life is just funny.
Bay of Angels was Demy's second full-length film after Lola. Rumor has it that he wrote it in a matter of days while waiting for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to get off the ground. I don't know how much truth there is to that claim, but the film certainly has a spontaneous feel to it.
Mild-mannered bank clerk Jean (Claude Mann) lives a quiet life. One day a friend named Caron (Paul Guers) gives him a ride home in a brand new car. How did Caron afford it? By winning big in roulette. Jean knows that gambling is addictive and destructive -- and his father (Henri Nassiet) reinforces that notion -- but Caron insists that Jean join him for a Saturday session.
Not surprisingly, Jean wins big but knows when to walk out with the cash. His father is infuriated and throws Jean out. Jean heads off to Nice where he meets the platinum blonde Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), a compulsive gambler who reports that she's not even particularly interested in money -- just gambling.
Jean is able to keep a clear head when it comes to gambling, but not when it comes to the lively Jackie. Part of her allure comes from her smoky danger and her heavily made-up night eyes. When she visits Jean on the beach one morning, she looks like she's on another planet -- she belongs permanently in casinos and bars.
Under Jackie's influence, Jean begins to lose his windfall (though he always keeps a stash in the hotel room). He becomes infatuated with her and begins to weigh his every bet against hers. But to her, the relationship is more symbiotic -- she keeps him around for laughs and for his cash flow and to provide him with the occasional monkey-love.
But of all filmmakers, Demy will not allow us to sink too far into the underworld, watching Jackie drag Jean down to his ultimate demise. No, in Bay of Angels, it's Jean who rescues Jackie. She runs through the mirrored casino halls out into the sunlight and into Jean's arms.
Though Jean is officially the film's protagonist, Bay of Angels belongs completely to Moreau. Her resume reads like a list of the world's greatest films: Antonioni's La Notte, Truffaut's Jules et Jim, Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Renoir's Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir, and so on. But I've never seen her as lively and as engaging as she is here -- a part-time femme fatale shedding the ice-queen image she cultivated over the years.
Varda has done a beautiful job of restoring the film's crisp, ruthless black-and-white imagery. Bay of Angels runs barely 79 minutes and it feels like a speedy pulp novel, the kind of story you can absorb quickly during a train or plane ride. But Demy adds a lightness that makes it seem refreshing rather than punishing. Don't miss seeing Bay of Angels on the Castro's big screen.