Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Alan Scott, Annie Duperoux, Jacques Harden, Elina Labourdette
Written by: Jacques Demy
Directed by: Jacques Demy
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 03/03/1961

Lola (1961)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Lola' Still Runs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jacques Demy's first film Lola (1961) opens with huge title card -- the word "Lola" scrawled across most of the screen, and in the lower corner rests the name "Max Ophuls."

Though the Castro held a complete retrospective of Ophuls' films a few years ago, I'm not sure most movie buffs know who he is. He was one of the most graceful, fluid filmmakers who ever lived (Stanley Kubrick was an admirer). Born in Germany, Ophuls worked in five countries over the course of his 25-year career -- most successfully in the U.S. with Letter from an Unknown Woman and in France with La Ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de... and his final film, Lola Montes.

Released in 1955, Lola Montes was something of a holy grail for French New Wave critics and filmmakers like Jacques Demy. It was a chance to deify one of their own in print, to celebrate his life and work and to perhaps meet the man himself and learn a few of his tricks.

And so Demy dedicates Lola to him, as well as paying tribute to another famous Lola, Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola from The Blue Angel (1930). Demy's Lola (Anouk Aim$#233;e), a Nantes dancehall girl who looks like Jacqueline Kennedy and acts like Marilyn Monroe, is still a manslayer, but a far less dangerous creature than Dietrich.

Like Ophuls' great 1950 film La Ronde, Lola ties together its title character with five or six others by silly coincidences and twists of fate. A lazy drifter named Roland (Marc Michel) meets a young girl in a bookstore who reminds him of his childhood friend, who has grown up to be Lola. Roland and Lola run into each other on the street later that day. Meanwhile, Lola has been entertaining a blond American sailor who's just in town for a couple of days. Lola tells a story about a sailor she once fell in love with as a young girl and whom she ended up marrying. He's been gone for years, and Lola still hopes for his return. Meanwhile, the little girl from the bookstore meets Lola's blond sailor, perhaps starting the story all over again.

Using a score by Michel Legrand, who would go on to create the wondrous songs and music for Demy's later hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, Lola has a springy, musical quality to it. The American sailors move around like Gene Kelly and company in On the Town. And the quasi-ridiculous ending -- with Lola's husband returning as a millionaire after having been stranded on a desert island -- reeks of dozens of Hollywood musicals.

But poor Roland, who has taken a shady job as a courier for smugglers, ends up just as badly off as when he started. Lola and Roland seem to belong to separate movies, just as the movie's jovial mood and its striking black-and-white, cinemascope cinematography seem to occupy different planes. (Demy's widow Agnes Varda, another great French New Wave director, has done an outstanding job restoring the film.)

As we learned from Bay of Angels (re-released two weeks ago), Demy sees the world as a combination of a movie-watching high, and the downer feeling of returning to real life when the movie has ended. He was just as movie crazy as his colleagues Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but his films couldn't be more different from their more serious, bone-to-pick films.

After returning from an exotic Gary Cooper film, Roland proclaims, "it's always beautiful in the movies." To which one of his friends replies, "so is life." Viewers today may have a hard time separating Demy's flights of fancy with his hard-core reality, but if Demy himself was able to have his cake and eat it too, so should we.

(This story originally ran in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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