The Return of Jacques Demy's Lola Points Out the Moral Shortcomings of Films like Harry Potter

16 Feb 2015 | 05:43

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Directed by Chris Columbus Opposite this week's restoration-revival of Jacques Demy's 1961 Lola (at Film Forum), the global industry surrounding Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone doesn't matter at all. In fact, most movies pale compared to Lola; what's special about its reappearance in film culture (with Winstar preparing home video and DVD releases for late 2002) is that it brings back a sensibility about movies and human relations that has been lost in the decades since Lola was part of regular cinema repertories. The film's neglect happened along with the loss of cinephilia?the love of movies that was key to the way Jacques Demy, a member of the French New Wave, found a way to express his complicated sense of the world and made his yet-unequaled set of love spectacles, Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

    With those movies Demy theorized?innovated?the connection between desire and artistic expression. This is his still insufficiently appreciated achievement. By taking personal advantage of music, singing, dancing, filmmaking, Demy helped modernist philosophy, the existential sense of life, reach a utopian peak through pop art. As our culture's enthrallment with filmmaking crested, Demy's optimism was eventually disregarded by the cynical self-conscious generations who made a fashion out of feeling superior to pop expressions of sincere emotion. Adolescents reared on feeling cool about movie depictions of violence, conquest and subterfuge (everything from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction) no longer felt any relation to the romantic fashion of the previous generation.

    Yeah, that's life, but it's also decline. Lola's story of the love connections between the dreamer Roland (Marc Michel) and a cabaret dancer Lola (Anouk Aimee), romantic seekers among a handful of devouts and skeptics in the seaport town of Nantes (Demy's hometown), builds back one's devastated faith in movie culture. Seeing Lola today is, more than ever, like that amazing young adult discovery that you can love?always a more extraordinary gift than realizing you can kill. Here's the clearest point of Lola's superiority to Harry Potter: that popular child-based fantasy about empowerment is not only politically specious but, well, childish. The simplistic moral lesson that tales like Harry Potter are meant to provide lacks the complexity Demy found in love-story archetypes. Roland longs for Lola, a friend not seen since he knew her as Cecile in grade school, whose own romantic life has developed beyond him. As Lola, she's now a single mother hoping that the father of her child will return; working as a dancer and "hostess," she balances pragmatism and survival with romance (a trope Eric Rohmer later copied in A Tale of Winter). Lola is great because its moral lesson is not simple?that is, not easy to assimilate. When Roland and Lola face up to their maturity, they (and several other characters) must suffer to do so. Dealing with suffering and struggle is beyond the purely competitive/child's adventure/magical-game terms of Harry Potter.

    It's important to rescue Demy from those who belittle his vision as superficial. Lola is "only superficially superficial" (to use a line from Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de...). The difference between Lola and trite romantic movies is illustrated by a moment in Harry Potter when the orphaned boy, standing before a mirror's image of his parents, is told, "It shows us nothing more than the deepest, most desperate desiring of our heart. It gives us knowledge but it doesn't do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." That's pabulum. Grown-up, openhearted Demy already knew it, so characters like Roland and Lola learn the lesson through realistic, everyday routines. (L'ennui is Lola's great, complementary theme.) They dwell on dreams while living; that's the true existential conundrum. Demy's art relies on dreamlike storytelling as an expressive mode. Now get this: Unlike Harry Potter and the majority of Hollywood movies, LOLA IS NOT ESCAPIST. It was made during that long-gone era when moviegoers looked forward to balancing imagination with philosophical speculation. Demy's cinema lives, it achieves seriousness, by being as true and complex as life.

    ?Lola is the movie I put in the number-one position of my 1992 Sight & Sound ballot of the 10 best films of all time. It only shows how much I favor Lola to rank it with Nashville, The Magnificent Ambersons, Intolerance, L'Avventura, etc. My critical point is to properly elevate Demy's vision. In our increasingly infantilized and commodified pop culture, Demy's appeal to the fantasist and the populist can be misunderstood as slight. Working in the specialized area of romance, Demy automatically risked deprecation (which may be why he's less well known than Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Fellini, Bergman, Bresson, none of whom made any movie superior to Lola). But at the movies people have always found it easy to dismiss what they take for granted. You only have to consider the substance of Lola?the exquisite widescreen compositions by Raoul Coutard that make an esthetic value of sunlight and scope; the moral innocents wearing white clothes in the dark, lonely streets; Michel Legrand's intricate musical score, its melody ("I Will Wait for You") permeating the characters' reality, and lingering like a fragrance?to realize how thoroughly Demy annotated movie romance. Like pop music, film was the language of Demy's time. He could address its wonder without treating it as a low form of expression (say, a mere musical or comedy) and without sentimentalizing the issues of Roland's isolation, Lola's promiscuity or the infidelity, criminality, deception or rebellion of other characters.

    In Demy's concept of cyclical human experience, Roland encounters a schoolgirl named Cecile (Annie Duperoux), a pop-infatuated teen who later goes on an impromptu date with an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott). This brief escapade, brimming with an adult's and child's sublimated desires, contains a devastating portent of destiny. When Cecile locks her eyes on the sailor, her innocent romantic soul (and Lola's) is revealed. Inspired, Demy retards this moment (in the musical sense) so that in a carousel's slow motion, pain and joy are extended, made exquisite. Like dance, like magic, like cinema. The sexual precocity in young Cecile's stare is spooky. It hints at adult sensuality as well as the amorality in anyone's profound longing. This is where an all-out fantasy like Harry Potter is, indeed, kidstuff (and why the world's acquiescence to it gets us nowhere).

    Young Cecile and her widowed mother, Mrs. Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), give Demy additional angles on hope and desire. (Their mother-daughter story would become the basis for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) This includes France's postwar fascination with American culture: Michel, Lola's ideal lover, who goes off to America to make his fortune, drives a white Cadillac Eldorado (perfect for a widescreen b&w romance). Lola sleeps with Frankie, whose whimsical presence and white uniform recall the cross-cultural charm of the Gene Kelly musicals On the Town and Anchors Aweigh, which both featured Frank Sinatra ("Come fly with me," Frankie tells Lola's son). And Roland's friendship with young Cecile and Mrs. Desnoyers begins when he lends them a French-to-English dictionary. Lola's subtext is cultural transition from fetish to passion, innocence to wisdom and how those great human complexes have been represented in European-American pop culture. Demy's ingenuity was sparked by the way American movie-musicals seem effortlessly to express romantic emotion. When flighty yet passionate Anouk Aimee, in the top hat and bustiere of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, sings "C'est moi, Lola," Demy clearly was emboldened by the genre to express himself so freely. (He was like a nonironic Flaubert exclaiming "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!")

    It's the movie-musical sensibility that makes Lola special. Long summarized as "a musical without music," Lola is a drama in which its characters' emotions sing out in Demy's lyrical, optimistic view of the commonplace. Of all the French New Wave movies, this one gives the best sense of why American jazz appealed to that cadre of young directors; jazz's sense of emotional and artistic improvisation are key to Demy's mix of experiences and techniques?moving from Legrand's pop to Mozart, his shifting motifs announce the loose plot's perfectly worked-out fate. Demy's life- and art-knowledge constantly overlap. The film's tone is innovative, yet it is dedicated to the great Max Ophuls, whose Lola Montes was an influence; and the graceful Elina Labourdette came from a similar, classic amatory tragedy, Bresson's Les Dames de Bois du Boulogne (a still from that movie appears as a family photograph in Lola).

    If these associations don't enrich Lola then you're dead to Demy's art?and to the way movies at one time advanced modernist sophistication. When bourgie Mrs. Desnoyers objects to Lawrence Durrell's Justine, a bookseller tells her, "You usually appreciate style," and she responds, "What about morality!" Always challenging his instincts, Demy eventually became the screen's greatest romantic filmmaker (only Borzage, Ophuls and Alan Rudolph compare) and his films increasingly became more complex and abstruse. Thank God, Lola's completely accessible. Agnes Varda, Demy's widow, oversaw this restoration yet the new subtitles omit Roland's jokey reference to his pal Michel Poiccard?Jean-Paul Belmondo?of Breathless. Plus, Lola's unforgettable advice, "There's a bit of happiness in wanting happiness," is far less good than the old subtitle translation, "You have tasted happiness in wanting happiness." The artist who filmed such sentiments might have been as well known as Harry Potter if contemporary moviegoers weren't so embarrassed by their own romantic instincts. Instead, Demy's legacy is kept alive by such homages to Lola as Andre Techine's in Wild Reeds or the pansexual romanticism of Martineau-Ducastel's Adventures of Felix.

    To chart the shift in cultural sensibility that has abandoned Demy to near obscurity, compare Kubrick's unloving mockery of "Singing in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange to Lola's sincere evocation of the Gene Kelly sailor-musical tradition. Kubrick's misanthropy has become more popular than Demy's ardent humanism. Like Mrs. Desnoyers, Demy insists on the morality vs. style question; he comes out on the side of using movie-musical ecstasy (almost invisible technical mastery) to express the need for human connection. Lola is, at heart, a fable about faith. Its gently magnificent climax imagines a pop world in which some prayers get answered and others remain whispered. "Cry who can/Laugh who will" goes its epigraph.


    Onscreen, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is like a super version of The Goonies. A bunch of kids have big-dream adventures, ending with a "moral" about power. The whole thing (and the publishing phenomenon that preceded it) suggests a desire for a new-age childhood mythology and?worse?boomers' mystification of their own egotism inflicted upon the next generation. It proves that readers aren't all that sophisticated; they're still susceptible to literary smoke-and-mirrors.

    Director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves were very shrewd in their own smoke-and-mirrors approach. Harry Potter has no Alice in Wonderland sinuous narrative or the dreamlike flow associated with great filmmaking from Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast to Spielberg's A.I. Viewers who can't tell the difference will probably prefer prosaic Columbus to Spielberg?and to Neil Jordan's richly explicated fairytales in The Company of Wolves and John Boorman's sumptuous Excalibur. This two-hour-plus epic is in the familiar tradition of overbudgeted, unimaginative bestseller adaptations. About orphaned Harry and his two best classmates at Hogwarts, an academy for apprentice wizards, it perpetuates our hegemony to Old England mythology. Like Young Sherlock Holmes (Spielberg must have turned down this project saying, "Been there. Hired Barry Levinson to do that") Harry Potter is essentially unimaginative. Despite some really fine f/x of the Hogwarts dining hall's celestial ceiling with suspended candles, then jack-o'-lanterns; banquet tables swamped with vittles, then candies; and the invisibility cloak sequence, this is just bedtime pulp for the masses, not personalized pop like A.I. and E.T.

    Sure, the scene where stones disappear to reveal the existence of hidden occult England is a nifty trick, but presumably Spielberg's pop classics had delivered moviegoers from this kind of Hogwash, promising a new generation of skeptical, witty fantasists. Sadly, Harry Potter is stocked with the usual Jumanji-like scenes of meaningless destruction. Even the best sequence, Harry riding his brand new Nimbus 2000 broomstick during a hockey/soccer/polo/skateboarding game, is modeled after Return of the Jedi and the flying orb from Phantasm. Nondiscriminating viewers, like undemanding readers, can be satisfied with Harry Potter. I certainly prefer it (and its goofy troll stalking the girl's lavatory) to the tired, facetious Shrek, but I still want better from a pop phenomenon meant to be revealing and instructive to the innocent in all of us. Too bad the recent A Dog of Flanders didn't please the zeitgeist; its antimaterial message lacked Harry Potter's vaguely racist power fantasy ("You won't make a fool of yourself; it's in your blood," Harry is told). A Dog of Flanders borrowed Christian allegory, but in Harry Potter's luxurious Home Alone-capitalist dream world, Christmas only means presents; nothing Christlike, just abracadabra. Its "moral" is irrelevant to life as adults or humans actually live it. Once that becomes popular, we're all sunk. Rise to the occasion of Lola.