© 2013 by James Clark
For all the fertility of his endeavors, it must, I think, be acknowledged that the career of Jacques Demy traces a quite relentless decline from initial efforts of breathtaking cogency. Of course, such a claim needs specific fortification. Here we have no interest in seriously comparing early and late films; but, in showing an early work of consummate subtlety, we can suggest the likelihood that subsequent instances won’t match what we’re about to see. As recently touched upon, his debut film, Lola (1961), strikes me as having evoked wonders of delicacy and wit in pursuit of an elusive, harsh true love. The two musicals of the 1960’s reach divine heights, while at the same time distancing specific sensibilities in becoming increasingly absorbed by conveying thematic concerns regarding Pandora’s Box and Surrealism. After that, such machinery becomes even more destructive of the carnal deftness seemingly so effortless in Lola.
There is, in the film directly following Lola and preceding the musicals, namely, Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels , a second golden moment, like its predecessor gently moving toward a form of Pandora’s Box, but never relinquishing its visceral situation. And here we bring it forward, not only for the sake of cueing up the mother lode of Demy’s invention (and where that could take us), but for a particularly timely celebration of Christmas.
Bay of Angels, you see, like Lola, is a most fortuitous exposure of that mysterious, seemingly unmanageable love that publicly confronts us every December. Its mystical features jump toward us in the film’s very first moments, where a keyhole point of light amidst a field of black rapidly expands to reveal (in vastly nuanced black and white cinematography, arrestingly positing the case that an artist known to be an inspired colorist did his best work with simply the grey scale) an angel, of sorts—a platinum blonde road warrior in an all-white Pierre Cardin jacket and skirt, smoking, rather defiantly, from a long cigarette holder—having the camera rapidly pull away from her in cloudy, early morning light along the still-breathtaking beach front of Nice, while a Michel Legrand musical composition thrillingly simulating the suspense of a roulette table in play (but also something harder to define, in play) crackles infectiously. Then we’re in a Paris bank, made to seem even more frozen than it would were it not juxtaposed by that preceding rush of elemental dynamics. One clerk tells another about his recent coup at a roulette table. And the latter, though far from becoming at that moment a partisan (and soon going on to shamefacedly admit, “I go [on vacation, imminent for him] every year to relatives in the country”), soon does have reasons to appreciate how forthcoming that wheel can be, and comes to the point of telling his dad, a watch maker, repairer and retailer, “I want to travel. I’ve changed.” His manner has indeed changed from deferential and resigned to an assertiveness stemming from a new compass. His father, in a lab coat but not what you’d call sterile, due to a disposition redolent of rustic verities, dictates, “I won’t have a gambler here… Go away.” The new gambler, Jean, warns his father, “Don’t say it twice;” the latter does, and Jean (not a wise man, but wisened up a bit) marches away, en route (in a standing-room only train at the height of the annual summer holiday season) to Nice (and its superior gambling facilities) and (unbeknown) to that angel.
We should remember that we’ve been introduced to Jackie, the early stroller with a rocketing undertow who keys up the celebratory strain of the manoeuvres comprising this war zone of a movie, as moving within a territory virtually deserted. Her theme song is markedly more intense, more otherworldly, than that folk motif, via mandolin, engulfing Jean as he makes his way from the mob scene at the station to the antiquated, narrow and busily occupied alleyway where his little hotel is waiting. Jean’s last name, Fournier, is also the French word for baker, whispering out to us that the changed man is also wedded, somewhat, to persistent domesticity. (Our protagonists will come to the point where she will taunt, “Afraid?” and he will sneer, “Yes. Of being like you.” Jackie’s last name, Demaistre, rings bells in covering a leading opponent of the Enlightenment in its classical rationalist gravitas. That it is in fact the surname of her now-divorced husband, further adds the zest of revolt to a merely superstitious defender of an ancient status quo. The banker friend who urged Jean to gamble—“You should try everything in life”—is Caron, very attentive to his wife’s disapproval of such recklessness, and perhaps a little glance at Leslie Caron, the love-interest in An American in Paris, playing opposite Gene Kelly, whom Demy was to deploy, in the second of his musicals, as only half-daring, half-scintillating. Caron scolds Jean, on their drive back from the baptism, “You lacked daring. With your luck, you’d have won more.”)
Jean had dismayed his father by opining, “Money can grow on trees…” And his first visit to the casino by the Mediterranean (along that runway that jetted at us at the beginning, and, rather equivocally—for a semi-tropical haven with lush palm trees and flowers at the frontage—named Promenade des Anglais [English Walk]) shows him to be a darling of eventuation, a status by which he impresses Jackie, who follows his intuitions that afternoon and sees the point of forming a partnership with this bold and handsome young man. On his first noticing her there, she has (the cigarette holder no longer on the board) an awkwardly long cigarette dangling from her lips, rather at odds with the art deco, geometric precision of the room in homage to a Riviera clientele where, as Caron had maintained, “People live for gambling…” (as passionate for risks, then, as artists are). Just before that, during his first bet (his first “play,” about which the croupier calls, “Faites vos jeux” (“Make your play [Make your move]), we see him looking away from the progress of the wheel and he recoils slightly on having lost. In that sequence, the anxiety controlling his eyes, his face and his body transmits to us his having failed to sustain the forward moving enthusiasm of his stint of “beginner’s luck.” Regaining his poise, coming to Jackie’s table—having the presence of mind, that is, to circulate into his venture—on betting on 3 and having it go well, he has touched many bases. First, the confidence with which he follows through to the action of the wheel impresses a till-then miffed and rather frumpy angel having settled into passivity, counting on the objective world to enrich her without any input of guts on her part. She livens up and duplicates his bid; and, on having her resolve rewarded, her smile upon him shows traces of the celestial. He comes to sit next to her, and she asks, in the atmosphere generated by his being blessed by the manifestation of things and their sense, “What should I bet?” “17 has a good chance,” he reports. And 17 it is, after his anticipatory stature attains to thrilling as compared with cringing, while hers has been continuously fearful. But, now, fully persuaded by his incisiveness, she joins him in scaling those ramparts of chance; and that sure-footed scaling of the minor key we heard at that keyhole explosion by which we entered returns like a spicy carol to grace a brave expedition of heart. It is in this vein, of solid intent as tracing into a fantasy about bending the course of material inertia, that the film daringly essays the risky cinematic construction of a narrative driven by, at one and the same time, a series of quirks of fate and a series of variable challenges of self-control. The focal point of seeking to get rich by quite hopeless means elicits from our protagonists a parallel universe of dealing with countless possibilities adding up, when mastered, to gratifications beyond money. Demy marvelously melds these areas of dynamics, almost certainly by way of the intuition that braving deadly abysses discharges energies being in a creative partnership with nature, including that form of nature accounting for the processes of the wheel and its ball. The playfulness in all this traces back to such finite input into the infinite not at all putting a mortal in predictable familiarity with the dimension of material motions. Baie des Anges writes itself such a counterfeit bonus, in order to see played out at dramatic intensity the entirely cogent saga of going for a sensual fortune, and being on the spot to go on from there to enjoyably manage it.
Jean, on his trip with Caron, first sees Jackie being thrown out of the suburban Paris casino of Enghien, for cheating, at which she screams out at her enemies, “…the manners of a peasant!” On returning home to stand up to his father, he declares, “Until now I’ve acted like a mild-mannered kid. But it’s over. I need something else… My feet are firmly on the ground.” This couple—so heavily entangled in struggling with themselves—join forces and weaknesses for a season of highs and lows (a range of configuration that covers most of our Christmases). I marvel at Demy’s thereby couching the melodramatic tailspin within a range of shredding devotions to self-belief. Catching up with them on that mysterious roll, we have Jean, truly departing from easily swayed “mild-mannered kid,” and headed, not for a wardrobe-change in a phone booth, but for combating his own weaknesses on a terrain of truly super complexity. “Let’s go before we lose,” he tells Jackie, who argues, “But we’re winning…” and yet follows his lead. At this moment of triumph, when the matter of becoming regally in tune with the powers of nature itself has situated questions of sheer materiality to a mystery and not a demeaning vigil (addiction), off they go to that shining beach front. She laughs out loud and says, “It’s funny! Life has its tricks!” Lighting up one of those big-pencil cigarettes and tossing back her head, inhaling, thereby, vertically, she feels it apt to say, “I haven’t eaten in two days (the rigors of her venture all making sense once more). He, more routinely than gallantly (having just come away with 900,000 French francs) invites her to dinner at a chic lounge/restaurant; and his patter lacks her sense of great (Christmastime) rejoicing. Looking out at Nice in its most glittering, evening mode, he allows some self-doubt to seep into this time for comfort and joy. “I thought such a lifestyle no longer existed.” (He had remarked to Caron, on that return trip, “I don’t deserve that money. I feel as if I stole it.” But back home he insisted to his father, “It [gambling] isn’t any more immoral than anything else!”) “This opulence” he forms a distance toward: “…only in movies…” as self-evidently decadent. Jackie cuts him off with, “I feel like dancing… I want to move!” We could see it coming but he does spell it out for us—“I’m not a good dancer…” As they move across the floor, she, too, becomes somewhat stuck in matters that she’d momentarily risen above, in riding out with disinterested composure. “I’ve always been passionate… My husband was jealous of my passion… He got custody of the baby…”
From out of her self-imposed anxiety she looks to a return to the casino as the right (recovery) move now; and Jean, no longer mastering his being easily led, accompanies her, despite having heavily distracted purchase upon the ways of the game. The trail to the primal upshots is cold, and they lose a lot of money, fast. At the point of their buying their hot-button chips, the cashier asks Jean, “La meme chose?” [The same?]. And he replies, “La meme chose,” giving us reason to trace whether, in fact, it’s the same thing for both of them. Her Lucky Strike cigarettes were no way to get on track—the term, “Lucky” signalling too much about the blind impingement of cold steel. (Once again, then, we are given the opportunity to probe and savor Demy’s dovetailing the self-directedness of entities ravenous for rejoicing and a world of mechanical processes absolutely uncontrollable by any mortal hopes and strivings.) Utterly passive once again, both of them hold their breath in miserable dependence upon blind, indifferent motion to deliver a gift to them. In conjunction with the now crude way she smokes her lucky strike, there is a flare-up in the room as someone (following in Jackie’s recent footsteps) is run off of the premises for desperately trying to steal a pile of chips. The partnership of Jackie and Jean, so full of brio for a few minutes, becomes rancorous, as he calls her “stupid” for demanding his last 30,000 francs. But his generosity (after their being utterly routed and leaving in not much better shape than the chips thief), in allowing her to sleep in his hotel room (paid for in advance and still containing a prudent nest egg), constitutes a rally of some depth after a jag of pettiness. In this thrum she says, “What a dope I am… I behaved like a lunatic!” It is then that Jackie refers to her friend, Marijo, a reformed gambler now running a bar in Nice, who had several times before bailed her out of jackpots like the present one, but who was fed up with her. Marijo herself may no longer be a source of generosity; but in the drift toward Jean’s hotel—Jackie humming that local song of homespun whimsy first seeming just right for (still pretty much) mild-mannered Jean—her sometime friend has hoisted into view a manger. (Jackie was going to sleep at the railway station.)
Though, after a few slugs of Scotch, Jackie describes the staining on the ceiling as “a Sioux’s head,” a ragged resilience (but, come to think of it, resilience, rather than defeat and extinction, may be at least part of the point) has peeked out from under the shambles. She leaves early in the morning (supposedly aiming for Paris). But she meets up with him on the pebbly beach, having extracted, after all, 20,000 francs from Marijo (on the pretext of leaving town). She looks around disapprovingly, and pronounces, “This display of flabby flesh makes me sick… rather be at the casino… Au revoir…” And soon he’s there with her, once again caught up in her wake. She has linked up with another man, their reunion having annoyed and frightened the stranger; but although they are not unmindful that their glamor can be gratifyingly intimidating and although from out of soon-restored sensuous tang they make millions and that chiming, carol-like music fills the air, Jean overplays his intimacy with her—before her leaving that morning he kisses her as she dresses in the bathroom and she asks, “What do you feel?” “Nothing,” he warns; then amends that to, “I mean it felt kind of funny…” to which she replies, “Don’t be stupidly sentimental…”—and calls her a slut and disgusting for having been with another man and sizing him up for exploitation.
That rough patch seems to be smoothed out by the inducing of fabulous gifts provided by the casino and its bank. But, as before, the partners prove not to be able to sustain their elation and we enter into a collapse and capitulation, made more nightmarish by the long-term elegance of Monte Carlo, and also, perhaps most important of all, by Jackie’s being induced to express her sense of the necessity of that danger which only the roulette wheel can sustain for her on a long-term basis. In her moment of becoming a millionaire and all the dazzling mystery entailed in that, Jackie turns her attention to recovering the jewels she had to leave in covering losses at the fabled fun house. “You’ll see!” she tells Jean. “We’ll live the high life!” The film makes clear that “high life” most aptly covers not merchandise but rather thrilling to abysses that yield, once in a rather long while, windfalls of cash but also everyday bounties of mastery of social and solitary energies. Jackie and Jean evince wherewithal to pursue such courses; but Bay of Angels brings us to the formidable and fascinating terror induced by the full proportions of that panache, proportions to which they respond in divergent ways.
They go on a shopping spree, gearing up for the blue-chip life of Monaco—a tux for him, gowns for her, and a snappy sports car. But (a taste of how complexly nuanced this eventuation is) over and above the gaucherie they make of their approach to such designs (it being quite possible not to be crude in the enjoyment of such gifts), there is Jackie’s opening her heart to discoveries she has devoted a lot of time to bringing to some (however inoperative) precision. During the first moments (on the heels of their outperforming the casino at Nice) of aiming for the high stakes of Monte Carlo, she cries out, “Happiness makes me versatile… No!… voluble!” The ambiguity implicit in that bifurcation—versatile’s often shallow clutter as against voluble’s often concentrated roll—bespeaks her being very conversant with a dilemma of elaboration from out of a rejoicing wellspring.
Immediately following that reflective offering to Jean (a figure having walked away from his dad but having far from left him behind), Jackie, now (for a brief time) seemingly independently wealthy, veers sharply away from considerateness for him, let alone affection and let alone love. Arrived at their grand suite near the casino, he returns to the theme of decadence, asking with a frown, “You like the luxe life?” She answers, “Yes and No,” bang on her subterranean stream of consciousness; and she goes on to emphasize that the money is not her target. “If I loved money, I wouldn’t squander it.” She touches on gambling’s bringing to her an engrossing take on luxury and poverty as well as “the mystery of numbers…” Bringing him and us up close to the heart of her obsession with gambling, she embarks on theological rhetoric. “I often wondered whether God ruled over numbers… The first time I entered a casino I felt as if it was a church… I tell you gambling has become my religion.” From volubility spiked by sudden, almost incredible wealth (and that almost incredible feature endows this film with the tensile strength of creative fantasy more to the point than inert normality), she lurches into the forcible irritation of the besiegement by society her endeavors have brought her to. “You don’t believe in God?” she challenges him, from out of an astronomically unorthodox sense of that wildly ambiguous and provocative term. Of course he says “No” (as she was leading him to offend her); and that allows her to get onto a war-footing—“I knew you wouldn’t understand…” [as if she herself understands the quagmire she’s alluding to]. Declaring herself a free spirit embattled by a “flabby” world, she brushes aside his recourse to the family she dumped from out of her dangerous, elitist preciousness, with, “Why deny myself this passion?” On his wondering out loud where that leaves him, she prefaces her attack with a flourish about his lack of perception, “I thought you’d understand.” Then she shoots out this bile—“You want to know why I drag you behind me like a dog? You bring me luck, like a lucky horseshoe!” Thereupon he viciously slaps her around, he fulsomely apologizes, they embrace; and, their intent more than a little compromised, they (with glum visages and no snap to their motion) oversee their fortunes being quickly pillaged by the house and its ponderously inert decor of black walls and gilded geometric touches of suffocating weight.
He had asked, in the midst of their battle (when she blurted out the overstatement which, at some level would rear up and bite her, “I don’t owe anyone anything. Why shouldn’t I have my happiness”), “Haven’t you a heart?” And she had had to maintain the tone of vengeance toward all and sundry, “You have no rights over me! None!” But let’s look back at that short period when affection, however feeble, had been put into play by them. Specifically, let’s spotlight the moment when, just before their big heist at the Nice casino, her career (such as it was) induces her to dissolve the partnership and employ him as an attendant. Out of that snit, where he was wont to call her a slut, she tells him, “Don’t pull a face. Smile… Or else I’ll leave the table.” He continues to glare, and so she gets up to leave. “You won’t smile?” And then he whines, “No, stay! Forgive me…” During the passage showing them amidst the rapid depletion of their millions by a rapacious Monte Carlo, he is reduced to fetching more chips for her in a futile effort to stanch the wound. All the adulterated little motions between them, toward gentle sharing in bounties of emotional life, seem now to be null and void, in her (perhaps only half-sustained) plunge to executive status under the spell of that millionaires’ playground.
Bay of Angels comes down to the extreme perishability of the nitty gritty of angelic composure and creative efficacy in a Mediterranean (Middle zone) dispensation constituting the birthplace of a rational culture bound, in its ultimacy, to bedevil those impulses, on display here, toward “this passion.” As they are ushered into their Monte Carlo suite, Jackie heads straight for the terrace and its prospect upon that Mediterranean expanse. “Look, Jean!” she exclaims. “It’s marvellous… I’m happy!” This moment takes us back to that soaring Mediterranean spaciousness at the outset of the film. And, in its light, their limping back to Nice, his begging to be forgiven by his father and consequently receiving a generous money order, her now being in a splotchy dress that resembles the covering of a cow (a motif tracing out to her presently hoping to get a break from the croupier by flirting with him), her having lost her train fare at the roulette table, his saying, “Come with me,” and her saying, “No, Jean” and then (his having left the room) her racing after him (her shredded [and thereby not entirely without fizz] sensibility imaged refractively by the mirrors in the foyer) and their embracing at the entrance while that zingy tune bubbles up again, deliver a sort of hectic Christmas visit (in August) to a relative’s home, ready for rejoicing but painfully aware of the distance to cross on behalf of grace.
Just as, at the end of Lola, with its, “What’s wrong?”/ “Nothing,” this is a presentation, as only Demy can devise, of the virtually hopeless storminess of existence. Lola’s marriage (as Model Shop conveys) lasts a few months. That would be pushing it for Jackie and Jean. There is, however, a reflux, of sorts, to such bilious sagas, in the form of an aura of love sustained to the point of disinterested coherence. Our storm-tossed lovers here are far more abrasive and fatalistic than those of the debut film. We can’t see them being readily touched by Christmas good cheer. But they are right for the season inasmuch as they (she, particularly) look out upon volatility holding promise of love: uncanny, dangerous and (very) strangely fulfilling. As such Baie des Anges goes far beyond brilliance and into a realm of haunting blessedness.
On rebooking into the Nice pension, the world-weary lady at the desk asks the routed survivors of the Monte Carlo massacre, “La meme?” (“The same [room]?”). And we know it will, indeed, be more of the same self-destruction—hers in the service of danger; his in the service of safety. But Demy has cast light upon that expanse of sensibility where “la meme” is put in its place, and, in this, we become the recipients of a gift of inestimable loveliness.