“One’s first love is so intense,” the characters in Jacques Demy’s Lola declare again and again. The same might be said of first films — certainly of Lola itself, Demy’s 1961 debut feature. If the fledgling director had had his way, it might have looked a great deal like some of his later works, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as he explained in an interview included in Agnès Varda’s 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy: “It would have cost 250 million francs, in color and Scope, with lots of dancing and singing and costumes. So [producer Georges] de Beauregard told me, ‘Look, it’s a sweet project, but [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Breathless cost 32 million. If you can do yours for 35, it’s a deal.'” Demy accepted. The resulting film — black and white, with only a single short song — may not resemble his subsequent musicals on a superficial level, but many of their major elements are already present: characters crossing paths, improbable coincidences and, above all, a pervasive air of romance. Perhaps Lola‘s smaller scale, with its relative modesty and lack of frills, actually gives these qualities an added strength and purity.
“With Lola I wanted to make a film about the search for happiness, for love in the modern world,” Demy said in a March 1961 interview with Le Monde. “It’s difficult to summarize the story: the themes crisscross one another and the film, set in the countryside in June 1960, is constructed around chance meetings and coincidence.” Specifically, the movie takes place in Nantes, where the director grew up. “This town and its people bore me,” says a young man named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), sounding like the twin sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort, though his dissatisfaction is deeper and more existential than these words suggest. “You’re no doubt intelligent,” his most recent boss remarks while firing him for somehow managing to be late five times in three days. “But you have a major fault: you’re off in the clouds.” Nothing in real life interests him enough for him to commit himself to it; instead, he turns to books (he’s late on one occasion because he’s intent on finishing a novel), to films (a Gary Cooper movie convinces him that he should move to the South Pacific). For the sake of doing something different, he even accepts a shady job offer that involves delivering a briefcase to Johannesburg. “Like in a fairy tale,” he says.
His outlook starts to change, however, when he runs into a childhood friend (Anouk Aimée) whom he hasn’t seen in ten or fifteen years. When he knew her, her name was Cécile; now she’s Lola, a cabaret performer and single mother to a little boy, Yvon (Gérard Delaroche). Lola is a romantic too: Yvon’s father, Michel (Jacques Harden), disappeared seven years ago upon finding out that she was pregnant, supposedly to seek his fortune so that he could support his son. Despite all indications to the contrary, she continues to hope that he’ll return to them one day, and she’s unable to love any other man because of him. Frankie (Alan Scott), a sailor from Chicago who’s infatuated with her, notes that he falls in love all the time, but Lola herself sees things quite differently. “You only love once,” she says. “For me, it already happened.”
In Lola’s cabaret act, she performs a song that presents her as a tease, a flirt, a woman who “likes to please them every day without going all the way,” who laughs at men behind their backs. The lyrics were written by director Agnès Varda, soon to be Demy’s wife, so it’s not surprising that the song evokes her own Cléo from 5 to 7, released a year after Lola. Cléo (played by Corinne Marchand, who also appears in Lola as one of the central character’s co-workers) is a singer whose repertoire includes such titles as “Inconstant Girl” and “The Girl Who Lied,” songs that require her to take on the role of a coquette or a gold digger. Lola’s song may reflect her inability to love again and move on with her life, but it’s turned into something perversely attractive — not a source of pain, as it is in reality. “I’m not mean,” she tells Roland despondently. “I try never to hurt people, yet I do, in spite of myself, when I’d really like everyone to be happy.”
Lola seems to be playing a part in her everyday life as well as in her work. Since Roland knew her, she’s taken on a new name and a new appearance, to the point that he doesn’t recognize her at first. “One must look attractive — a cardinal rule,” she says to him as she fixes her hair on the street. Still, there’s an admirable pragmatism even in this. Unlike Roland, who’s crippled by his romantic daydreams, or the long-absent Michel, Lola does whatever it takes to provide for her beloved son, though it means giving up on her own plans and goals. (Like Catherine Deneuve’s character in The Young Girls of Rochefort, she once aspired to dance for the Opéra Ballet.) One gets the sense, too, that her effervescence isn’t entirely a mask put on to hide her true self, that she’s genuinely doing her best not to wallow in her sorrow and unfulfilled longing. “I’m not usually like this. I’m the cheerful type,” she apologizes during a rare crying spell. “In fact, I can’t stand moaning sob sisters.”
For all of Lola’s outward ebullience, being a single mother is no easy task. It’s a theme that recurs in several Demy films, and it’s reinforced here through the characters of Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette) and her daughter Cécile (Annie Duperoux), the latter of whom is celebrating her fourteenth birthday. The fact that the girl shares Lola’s real name is hardly by chance, as Demy explained in the aforementioned Le Monde interview: “I chose three different moments in the life of three characters: Lola, the young cabaret singer and dancer, and a little girl and her mother, who represent her when she’s 14 and 38 years old.” Madame Desnoyers wants to give her daughter a proper upbringing but struggles with the girl’s growing thirst for independence and the secret of her true paternity, issues that Lola may well face with Yvon in the future. The connections between Lola and the young Cécile are more conspicuous yet. Not only does the girl also dream of becoming a dancer, but she develops an intense crush on Frankie, the big, blond American sailor who accompanies her to a carnival; Lola herself was fourteen and at a carnival when she fell in love at first sight with the big, blond Michel — who happens to have been dressed like an American sailor at the time.
In many another film, such unlikely (to say the least) coincidences would only be ridiculous — if the filmmakers dared to include them at all, that is. Demy’s movies, on the other hand, embrace these improbabilities wholeheartedly, and they provide much of the charm in his work. “Demy referred to the fictional worlds created in his films as en chanté, a play on the words for sung and enchanted; music and fairy tale structures were fundamental to their plots,” Richard Neupert writes in A History of the French New Wave Cinema. The repetitions in Lola take on an almost mythic quality, rather like Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus (1959), in which the main characters are modern reincarnations of the legendary Orpheus and Eurydice, and a still-younger generation appears to inherit these immortal roles at the end of the film. That said, the magic of Lola‘s world is tempered by realism. There are frequent references to World War II, which upended the lives of many of the characters; hearts get broken; dreams don’t become reality. Roland points out to Lola that even if Michel does come back, he won’t match the image she’s created of him, and if he never returns, she’ll have wasted her life. She sees the truth in this and even acknowledges the possibility of a future romance with the enamored Roland, but she won’t — or can’t — give up on her first love so easily.
Lola opens with an iris-in and concludes with an iris-out, with the same car arriving in Nantes at the beginning and leaving it at the end — a kind of visual shorthand for “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after.” However, some of the characters would live on in other Demy films. Roland reappears in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which he alludes to his experiences in Lola and ends up playing a major role in the plot; Lola herself, meanwhile, turns up 1969’s Model Shop, set in a decidedly unromantic Los Angeles. Her reasons for being there are rather disheartening, as are the fates of several of the other figures from her eponymous film (as she reveals), yet she continues to hope for and work toward something better. Life isn’t a fairy tale — not even in Jacques Demy movies sometimes — but as Roland puts it, “There’s a bit of happiness in simply wanting happiness.”
In the Le Monde interview, Demy expressed his intent for the film: “I would hope that anyone feeling depressed or glum, who goes to see Lola, leaves with a smile on their face and that the film manages to change their state of mind and outlook on life — at least temporarily.”
Demy, Jacques. Interview with Yvonne Baby. Le Monde 4 March 1961. Rpt. in French New Wave. By Jean Douchet. Trans. Robert Bonnono. Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.
Neupert, Richard. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. University of Wisconsin, 2007.
The World of Jacques Demy. Dir. Agnès Varda. Ciné-Tamaris, 1995.
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