BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Demy’s debut.

JACQUES DEMY films capture the bittersweet beauty of life so, so well. Even if he throws in purposefully ridiculous subplots, attacks ‘reality’ with gorgeous imagery, colours or music, or has narratives that contain considerable contrivances and coincidences. Lola was his first film, a box office failure when first released, but it contains many of the germs of his more successful work. That said, it’s a wonderful film in its own right, a moving tribute to the work of Ophuls and von Sternberg, and revelling in the carefree, cinematic atmosphere that spawned the Nouvelle Vague.

The film’s main protagonist, Roland Cassard, is a bored, sad man, wasting his life away in Nantes (Demy’s hometown). He bumps into his old friend, Cécile (Anouk Aimée), a girl he was once in love with, but decades and fate forced them apart. Furthermore, Roland’s feelings may not be mutual. Cécile, or her more commonly used ‘dance’ name Lola (named in homage to Marlene Dietrich’s character in The Blue Angel), has love issues herself – a persistent, but kind-hearted American serviceman wants her attention, and she still pines after her first love, one Michel, whom she hasn’t seen for seven years.

Demy’s films often feature lovers who never quite intersect – fate, the bare contrivances of life, the weighty little decisions people make all ending up invariably leading to heartache and loss. The final coupling in Lola may refute this somewhat, but there are plenty of other characters who don’t achieve true love, most poignantly, the young Cécile, whose life plays out as a tear-inducing mirror image of Lola’s.

The characters are always on the move. It’s not just in the story either (which has characters picking up and moving their lives all over the place), but in the way he films his characters. Benefiting from the portable cameras that helped kick-start the Nouvelle Vague in the first place, his characters are constantly in motion, struggling to sit still, restless. Perhaps, wistfully, this is why Demy suggests true love is such a struggle. This is perhaps also the inverse stylistically to the constantly moving camera and static characters of his hero Ophuls (particularly Ophuls’ last film Lola Montès). But this does have a similar Brechtian effect of forcing an audience to analyse the characters and their ‘real-life’. He also commits to a number of Nouvelle Vague tropes, even though Demy is not traditionally seen as a Nouvelle Vague director: homages, genre-shifts, fascination with the everyday, breaks in ‘reality’ (slow motion, unusual cuts), self-conscious/self-reflexive jokes (though I doubted that he would have realised that Aimée one day would end up playing Justine when he made his joke on the stupidity of Lawrence Durrell’s eponymous heroine in Justine).

Of course, Demy is famous for his musicals and his bright colours, neither of which is evident in Lola. You have to wait for the sublime Umbrellas of Cherbourg for their greatest crystallisation (that film is a pseudo continuation of this narrative). The closest thing to the musical element in Lola is the flair for flowing language that Demy has, the quick repartee, and the one rather bad song that Aimée sings. The music is cleverly used, from Beethoven to jazz. The black and white imagery is beautiful, in particular during the heart-breaking fairground scene, or the potent final images. It also shows how Demy was a genius at capturing the dance of the everyday, revelling in the tragic quietness of normalcy. He’s one of the greats, an underrated director from one of cinema’s golden periods, and it’s an absolute pleasure that the Film Society has decided to show a number of his films.