Iris in on the French Riviera: A woman (Jeanne Moreau) with platinum blonde hair walks along a promenade that overlooks the water, a purse in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her pace as she approaches the camera, though fairly brisk, is no match for that of the camera itself. It pulls back ever farther, ceaselessly, racing away from her so that she becomes an increasingly minuscule figure in the distance. After a moment, a piano begins to play — dramatic, impassioned, suffused with romantic longing. It’s the sort of score one expects to hear in a Jacques Demy film (right down to the fact that it was composed by his frequent collaborator Michel Legrand), yet the Demy film that follows this opening — 1963’s Bay of Angels — isn’t quite what the music might suggest.
Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) is a clean-cut young man who works in a Parisian bank and lives with his widowed father (Henri Nassiet). One day, his friend and co-worker Caron (Paul Guers) offers him a ride home in the car he’s just purchased with his recent roulette winnings. Caron, it emerges, is something of a gambling addict, and he invites Jean to visit the casino at Enghien with him. In spite of his own reluctance (“I think if I got started, I’d never stop”) and his father’s deep disapproval, Jean agrees to go, and beginner’s luck appears to be on his side: He walks away with almost half a million francs. “It’s immoral. I won six months’ pay in an hour,” he tells Caron during their drive home, but there’s a faint smile on his face as he says it. Before long, he’s off to the Riviera in order to spend his vacation gambling — a decision that gets him kicked out of his father’s house.
It’s in Nice that he meets Jacqueline “Jackie” Demaistre, the woman shown at the start of the film. This isn’t the first time he’s laid eyes on her: Earlier, when he went to Enghien with Caron, they witnessed her being forcibly ejected from the casino, hurling threats and accusations of theft at the staff all the while. Things aren’t much better for her in Nice, where she’s lost all of her money, pawned her jewels, hasn’t eaten in two days and is down to her last chip when Jean comes along. The two of them happen to bet on the same number, and they win. Not only that, they continue to win together in this manner until Jean decides that they should quit while they’re ahead, though Jackie would prefer to keep playing. She regards Jean as a good luck charm, and from this point on they become partners in more than one sense of the word.
Significantly, although a love affair does develop between Jean and Jackie, the gushingly romantic piano piece heard at the start of the film first recurs during Jean’s visit to the Enghien casino, providing accompaniment for the spinning of the roulette wheel. Jean isn’t in search of love, at least initially; he wants excitement, so much so that he once broke off an engagement because he was afraid of a dull future. “I saw what I’d turn into,” he explains. “I saw a sensible life ahead, with no risks or surprises.” Gambling, where everything is up to chance, appeals to this adventurous side of him, as does the glamorous lifestyle that goes along with it. “I didn’t think such a lifestyle existed anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I mean except in the movies or certain American novels,” he tells Jackie while they dine at a terrace restaurant in Nice.
It’s fitting, then, that the piano tune, after being employed in several casino scenes, next plays upon their arrival at a luxurious hotel room in Monte Carlo, rented with their latest winnings. By this stage of the film, they’ve become lovers, and the reuse of this music marks an important shift: Unlike earlier, gambling is no longer the only source of romance in Jean and Jackie’s lives. On the other hand, it’s still a key element in their relationship, in all likelihood their greatest bond. Not until the final minutes, when Jean runs through the streets of Nice in search of Jackie, and she subsequently chooses him over gambling, does the music come to represent love and love alone.
Yet, in light of what’s preceded it, this idealistic ending is hard to accept. Perhaps, in part, it’s because Bay of Angels is more grounded in reality than many another Demy film — not a musical, not a fairy tale, black and white rather than candy-colored. In this atmosphere, it’s impossible to dismiss the serious issues in Jean and Jackie’s relationship, to think that they can all be swept away in a moment; more to the point, it’s impossible to believe that Jackie can give up gambling so easily, even if she’s determined to do so.
“I don’t like money,” Jackie tells Jean. “You see what I do with it when I have it. If I loved money, I wouldn’t squander it. What I love about gambling is this idiotic life of luxury and poverty. And also the mystery — the mystery of numbers and chance.” At the beginning of the film, Jean compares gambling to drugs, and he’s not far off in Jackie’s case. She’s obsessed to the degree that she carries a miniature roulette wheel in her suitcase in order to play alone in her spare time. Virtually everything else seems to be a matter of indifference to her. Phrases like “It’s all the same” and “What’s the difference?” pepper her speech whether she’s talking about various cities, about various times of the day, or about various men. “I’m here with you,” she says to Jean when she goes to his hotel room for the first time, having nowhere else to spend the night. “I could be with another man in another room. My husband, say. I know him no better than you.” Her addiction — there’s no other word for it — broke up her marriage (her ex-husband was reportedly jealous of her gambling, further conflating it with love and romance), caused her to lose custody of her young son, drives her to go without food and sleep in train stations and lie and cheat and steal, even from Jean. He’s not so naive or lovestruck that he doesn’t see through her — in fact, he can be cruel, insulting her and hitting her on one occasion, which he immediately regrets — but he is softhearted enough to keep forgiving her.
The problem is that her words become increasingly hollow as the film goes on, whether she’s expressing disgust with herself or vowing to quit gambling. Nothing sticks. She may be sincere when she’s saying these things, but she always returns to the roulette wheel almost immediately, and some of her declarations to Jean are later revealed to be outright lies. Even her moments of apparent vulnerability have to come into question, as when she weeps over her own “rottenness” and a sympathetic Jean promises to write to his father for more money. Can he trust anything she says, or is it all manipulation, a means of fueling her addiction?
One time when he probably should listen to her is near the conclusion of the film, when she declares that she won’t be returning to Paris with him. “Sure, we could live together and be happy for a while. But what for? I’d never stop gambling. It would start all over. So what’s the use?” Sensible words — words that make her change of heart and the “love conquers all” ending all the less credible. Perhaps that’s why it’s as abrupt as it is: She runs after him, they embrace, and then they walk off into the proverbial sunset with their arms around each other and the piano gushing. Roll credits. There’s no time for harsh reality to reassert itself, the way it does after a night of romance in Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop, and the way it inevitably will for Jean and Jackie in the unseen but not-too-distant future. To use an obvious metaphor, if they’re gambling on love, the odds appear to be stacked against them.
In addition to employing the same music, the closing shot evokes the opening one by having the camera pull back, though this time Jean and Jackie are walking away from it rather than toward it, framed by a doorway. This drawing back, this creating of distance might, like the initial iris in, serve as a reminder that these are characters in a film, that this is all artificial — so why not give them a happy ending? Still, it sits uneasily with the rest of Bay of Angels, realistic as the film often is, and the troubled Jackie is such a fascinating and frustrating figure that she deserves something more complex than a simple “happily ever after.”