Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Model Shop (1969) - Jacques Demy and the end of the Sixties

Gary Lockwood Plays a Sad Loser

Alexandra Hay in Model Shop 1969

"Model Shop" (1969) from Columbia Pictures is a strange, sentimental Jacques Demy film. It is not great, or even very good, but it is a romantic drama that completely captures the essence of its time. It is a simple character study of a dropout from society, played by Gary Lockwood, and the end of his meandering existence, but he is just the key to the door to another time. It's rare that a film captures a moment in time like this, when the subtle change of seasons couldn't have been obvious amid the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. But this film almost magically accomplishes that feat.

Title card Model Shop 1969
Title card for Model Shop.

George Matthews (Lockwood) has given up a good job and forsaken the rat race in order to wander about town in his snazzy MG and "be free." Out of cash and in an unstable relationship with his aspiring actress girlfriend Gloria, played by Alexandria Hay, time is running out for George. Until midway in the film, he doesn't realize just how close to the end he is. But then he receives a fateful letter, and his wandering phase comes to a screeching halt.

George driving Model Shop 1969
George drives around looking for something to do.

The bulk of the film consists of George driving around and visiting friends. He bums money to keep his car for another month or two before it inevitably gets repossessed. And being without a car in this car-drenched society clearly would be a catastrophe. George, however, has a romantic air of fatalism. He spies an exotic woman who drives a white Mercury and he is off on a quest that is Quixotic because it doesn't address any of his problems, and in fact makes them worse. However, it is just something he has to do, and who can't identify with that? How he succeeds - and fails - at that quest is the core of the story. It also is a meme adopted to great effect by another top filmmaker, George Lucas, a few years later... but let's stick with "Model Shop" and not wander off to "American Graffiti."

Lockwood Aimee Model Shop 1969
Anouk Aimee steals her scenes with her tragic sense of doom.

It is easy to pick this movie apart, simply because expectations for a Jacques Demy film have to be high. Nothing much happens. The acting is stiff, there aren't any fancy sets, and things play out in that dull, dreary way that mirrors real life. It simply is a day in the life of a nobody who doesn't care enough about his own dwindling existence to take the multiple ways out that he is offered. George is living on the edge, and doesn't care that his own choices mean it has to end, and soon. He is a strange, forlorn character who has dropped out and has no desire to drop back in.

Alexandra Hay Model Shop 1969
Alexandra Hay is only in this for a moment, but got nice billing.

Still, it is a wonderful film of its time. Every character in the film has reached a turning point - not just George, but also pretty if vacuous girlfriend Gloria, his friends who form the real (and for a time quite successful) rock group Spirit, and the woman in the Mercury, Lola/Cecille (Anouk Aimee). It is the end of an era for all of them. Each is moving up, or down, or out, and none of their lives will ever be the same. The Sixties are over, and Demy captures that feel, filming at the very time and place (LA) when it is most visceral. Make no mistake: the real star of this film is Los Angeles in 1969. Easy to make a film years later that captures the end of an era, but it takes a genius to make one at the time, and show it so poetically with a story that underscores that very theme.

Anouk Aimee Model Shop 1969
Lola must forever remain a distant enigma for George.

This is worth watching to see fabulous shots of vintage LA as it really was. Rather banefully, it also follows up the title character from Demy's masterpiece "Lola," but don't watch it for that, it will only disappoint you. Unfortunately, this film failed, got generally negative reviews, and hurt the careers of the stars. While "Model Shop" had a poor reputation at the time, though, it has improved with age. Ever wonder what LA in the late Sixties was really like, driving around, seeing the streets and understanding the culture? See this film.

Below is the trailer for "Model Shop."


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