Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For

Lola (1961 France) Directed by Jacques Demy Shown: Anouk Aimée

To view Lola click here.

Jacques Demy came up right along with the rest of the French New Wave but his reputation didn’t have the same edge. While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais acquired a rep for groundbreaking work, Demy was too in love with both the Hollywood musical form and the sweeping camera of Max Ophüls to gain the same overseas cachet as the rest of the gang. Even being as close as he was to one of the most pioneering and acclaimed members of that group, the great Agnès Varda (his wife), Demy preferred the romantic and sentimental breeziness of the 1950s musical. His first feature film, Lola(1961), achieves a beautiful balance between the musical and the new wave with the sweeping camera of Ophüls thrown in for good measure. And all of it done without being a musical at all. Almost.

Lola begins with an iris in on a seaside street. The title of the movie is credited as “Lola á Max Ophüls” which simply translates to “Lola to Max Ophüls.” The movie is Demy’s tribute to his most admired filmmaker and once the title recedes and the camera dollies down to the street, the graceful movements of the camera recall Ophüls whenever they can. We see a white convertible driven by a ruggedly blond man in a cowboy hat. A group of American sailors block the street as they cross and he slams on the brakes. The first spoken words in the movie, as the sailor berates him, are in English. The cowboy drives away.

We are immediately whisked into the bar of Claire (Catherine Lutz) as she speaks with Roland (Marc Michel) about his lazy ways. He’s been fired from previous jobs for not doing his work and Claire tells him it will happen with his current job too. Suddenly, Jeanne (Margo Lion) rushes in, breathless, to announce that she has just seen her son, Michel (Jacques Harden), for the first time in seven years. He was driving down the road in a nice white convertible with a cowboy hat, the man we saw in the opening shots. He left, we are told, to make his fortune after getting his girlfriend, Cécile, pregnant. He left to make a fortune to be able to provide for both she and their son. It is shameful, Jeanne says, that he left and neither Claire nor Roland believe her. Shortly after, those sailors walk into a cabaret and we finally meet the star of the movie, Lola (Anouk Aimée).

Lola (1961 France)Directed by Jacques DemyShown: Anouk Aimée

Lola is working hard as a dancer to support her son and we quickly learn that she is the Cécile that Jeanne’s son left behind seven years ago. The sailor who crossed paths with Michel at the open, Frankie (Alan Scott), is in love with Lola but she only likes to be in his company because he reminds her of Michel. A little later, Roland meets another Cécile (Annie Duperoux), a charming 14-year-old girl who reminds him of the Cécile he once knew growing up, which you may have guessed is Lola. Meanwhile, the sailor meets the young girl too and because she reminds him of his own little sister, he becomes a kind of big brother to her in probably the sweetest relationship in the whole movie.

The characters and setups established, the rest of the movie examines their relationships to each other and the strong hold memory and nostalgia have on us all. Every character except the young Cécile seems to be living in the past. Lola longs for the return of Michel. Roland longs for the Cécile he knew from childhood. Michel longs to return to his past love a successful man. Frankie longs for home, Chicago, and sees it in the girl that reminds him of his sister. In a beautiful scene, Frankie takes the young Cécile to an amusement park and they share time on the rides. It is clear that Cécile has fallen hard for the strapping sailor and when she rests her head on his shoulder as they move around a carousel, we can see her creating a past that will one day give her comfort. Frankie, of course, sees her only as a little sister but Cécile will most likely always remember him as her first love. Or, at least, her first crush. And when he says the only way she will ever see him again is if she travels to Chicago, it’s clear that he will always be the young, handsome sailor in her mind, never to be seen again.

This kind of charming fluency with past and present is something that Demy clearly excelled at from the very start. And the lighthearted story would be comfortable in the setting of a Hollywood musical from the 1950s. Demy himself even described Lola as a “musical without music.” Of course, it does have music, composed by Michel Legrand, one of Demy’s greatest collaborators, and Lola even performs a song in the course of the movie but it is never a musical in the strict sense, the kind that Demy would turn to later in his career.

Movies like Lola don’t get the same kind of respect as the hard hitting debuts of Godard’s Breathless (1960) or Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) but it is just as strong a feature film debut. It is assured, beautifully shot and graceful and stands as one of my favorite debut works by a director. Max Ophüls would have been proud.

Greg Ferrara

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8 Responses Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For
Posted By swac44 : August 25, 2017 2:01 pm

Finally cracked open my Criterion Demy set today, and started with Lola, which seems to combine Ophuls’ Lola Montes and Marlene Dietrich’s Blue Angel, Lola Lola, in its title character for which Demy told Aimee to think of Marilyn Monroe.

I love the gradual intertwining of past and present here, and several references to Cherbourg, pointing the way to a future Demy masterpiece. Also remarkable to learn that Lola sang her big song as blank verse without music (lyrics by Varda) and Legrand wrote the tune for it after the fact. That takes a certain amount of skill and luck to pull off that seems rare in features today.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 26, 2017 3:52 pm

Hey, I’m glad you liked it! Didn’t think anyone cared about this film at all after the deafening silence once I posted it.

Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2017 8:25 pm

I’m an invalid for the time being, so.I’m catching up on films and a backlog of Streamline essays. Next up is a Lady Snowblood fest!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 27, 2017 9:06 am

How are you an invalid? Operation? Accident? Illness? Hope all is well.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 27, 2017 9:09 am

Or, you know, if it’s too personal, just ignore me, like everyone did with this post until two days ago.

Posted By swac44 : August 27, 2017 9:28 am

Heh…it’s OK! Accident, three broken limbs, wheelchair, long recovery…but the good news is I will be back on my feet soon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 27, 2017 9:48 am

Three?! Damn. Well, enjoy Lady Snowblood!

Posted By swac44 : August 27, 2017 3:48 pm

I went with Shake Hands With the Devil instead, which is hard to do with two broken arms, but anything for Cagney.

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