starring Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, Alan Scott
written and directed by Jacques Demy
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Lola is a film that makes froth do the work of genius. Like The Red Shoes and The Quiet Man, it's one-hundred percent movie-movie horse manure, a series of contrived romantic adventures that elicits a velveteen agony no sensible adult could possibly mistake for the real thing. But just like those movies, it makes you think it's doing more than its Leonard Maltin entry would otherwise suggest--and, in fact, does more than perhaps even creator Jacques Demy ever realized. In doting prettily on its collection of picturesque no-hopers, Lola manages to be profound in spite of itself; the film bestows a divine aesthetic light on people who would normally be passed over for attention, and in so doing gives their life a value that a social-realist film might degrade into a heap of misery.
At the centre is cabaret singer Lola (Anouk Aimée), named thusly because that's what cabaret singers are named in the years after The Blue Angel. Her romantic agony is that she has been abandoned by her lover and, raising their young son alone in Nantes, pines for his return. Curiously, this doesn't destroy her self-confidence, so certain is she that he will return that she derives some curious purpose from the exquisite masochism of the wait. Not that she doesn't have others to replace him: there's Frankie (Allan Scott), the American sailor with whom she has trysted, but only likes; there is also Roland (Marc Michel), a man who loved Lola long ago and, running into her after a long absence, loves her again.
The film wanders off into exploring the characters peripheral to Lola. Aimless Roland has gotten himself mixed up in a smuggling scheme and must leave for Johannesburg before he can do anything about his passion; Frankie, meanwhile, appears and reappears and forms a friendship with precocious Cecile (Annie Dupereux) on her 14th birthday. Cecile, meanwhile, is constantly at odds with her widowed mother, who in turn must put up with her insolent daughter. And so we have a series of lives lived independently of each other, none of them adding up to a driving narrative and all of them left to their own devices. The giddy power of Lola comes from privileging their emotions while acknowledging the unprivileged nature of their lives.
Now, we're not talking Brecht-Weill here, and nobody's going to mistake it for the Berliner Ensemble--all we have are some gently existential wanderings set to visual music. Demy's swirling mobile camera, heavily indebted to Max Ophüls, touches us physically as much as emotionally. On a level of pure pleasure, that's just fine, but there's something substantial to Demy's approach that stands in marked contrast to the jagged bleakness of Demy's Nouvelle Vague contemporaries. Lola is a picture that tries to save his characters' feelings from their cosmic insignificance, however briefly; the Godard of Vivre sa vie and the Chabrol of Les bonnes femmes build monuments to their heroines' pain and risk making it inevitable, even stoically noble.
True, Lola doesn't have the intellectual rigour of those other films and might have been more had it defined something beyond random emotions. But it serves as an important counterpoint to the smartass Cahiers killers who steeled themselves against emotion so as not to seem weak. Lola, like its eponymous lead, is stronger for feeling, showing that we need more than the confirmation of the worst if we intend to make it through our lives intact. This is not to say that Lola is as great as the Godard and Chabrol milestones, merely that it could open them up even further, were they to listen to what it had to say. For in the end, greatness can be an oppressive albatross, beating us into submission with demands for reverence. A film like Lola, scattered though its approach may be, helps us to realize the things that we and others need as much as any sombre dirge to the inhumanity of man. Originally published: July 8, 2002.