In some ways the whole of Model Shop is less than the sum of its parts, not to say that’s a bad thing. A Jacques Demy movie without a trace of the director’s signature flamboyance, the musical numbers and technicolor are replaced with indifference, realism, and a nearly tedious sense of time passing. As an document of 1960s West Coast counterculture, the film never addresses the issues head on. Bits of conversation or pieces of a news radio broadcast imply the larger atmosphere of unrest that is at the center of many similar films from the same era. Instead, awareness of the anti-war movement hovers just beyond the screen, gradually revealing the draft’s larger role in the action at the very end of the film. Often the actors (even legendary Anouk Aimée) give low energy performances and wooden line readings of often flat dialogue. The plot is thin and would, in less adept hands, be completely uninteresting. In this disconnected, sometimes boring film, it is location and Demy’s relationship to it as an enchanted outsider that ties the whole film together and elevates it into a cohesive and quintessential Los Angeles story.
From the onset, it is clear that LA is the star. The first shot is zeroed in on an oil derrick and then opens up to reveal a small neighborhood sprung up around it, seemingly unuawares that this doesn’t happen all the time. The Looney Tunes-style zoom highlights this unlikely juxtaposition. Only once we’ve backed down the road do we enter the home of our main characters. George (Gary Lockwood) and Gloria (Alexandra Hay) wake up in their hippie-ish pad, a small bungalow in Venice, to the terrible news that George’s beloved car is to be repossessed unless he can come up with one hundred bucks in the next few hours. “The rest of the film should logically follow this journey, but in classic LA fashion, the predicament doesn’t seem to worry George that much. He cruises around to hit up some pals for a while, but ends up spending most of the day following around a mysterious woman in a white Mercury convertible (Anouk Aimée reviving her Lola character from Demy’s earlier Lola).
As George meanders, he flips the radio on and off, stopping at reds, going on greens, giving the viewer a vision of the city whose rhythm is ruled by stoplights and whose soundtrack is at the mercy of what’s on the radio. All this aimlessness, a resignation to arbitrary circumstances beyond his control speaks to a certain French sensibility. Although George’s romance with Lola is ostensibly at the center of the film, Gary Lockwood and Anouk Aimée don’t have much chemistry. Their time together is relatively uninteresting as she spends most of it yammering on, rehashing the past. Lola lamenting her sorrows is tedious to the outsider not in love, but to George but it’s everything. His focus is on her but we see his life from above. Our advantageous perspective keeps this love affair from taking over the film.
It’s the peripheral that deserves our attention. It’s George’s visit to his friends at the leftist paper, with a brief conversation about the oppressive and senseless inconvenience of inescapable military service, the long stretches of driving the same roads at a leisurely pace, an overwhelming lack of urgency that truly make this film the perfect portrait of Los Angeles as a city that is simultaneously beautiful, depressing, and utterly inconsequential all at the same time.
Unemployed Los Angeles in particular is a place where there is always someone else with some time to kill. George is an aspiring architect, but he has this kind of time because he recently quit his job, disillusioned by the politics of climbing the corporate ladder. He is at a crossroads, restless to start his career, finding inspiration all over the place, but without the outlet he longs for. A drive into the Hollywood Hills provides him with a view of Los Angeles from above. Looking down on the sprawl, George becomes Demy’s proxy as he waxes poetic on “the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony”. Throughout Demy is smitten with the unlikely contrasts of the city, dwelling on shots of George looking through windows, descending from the affluence of the Hills down into The Strip, and we already discussed that first oil derrick. An out-of-work architect is the perfect occupation for the noncommittal admirer of this city.
The persistent banality is heightened by George’s largely absent but inevitable draft letter which, when it finally arrives, renders making any goal-oriented decisions futile lest they be derailed by an obligation to Uncle Sam. What, on first look, comes across as a moody exercise in trendy aesthetics is saved by Demy’s commitment to honesty through style. Model Shop was originally to be titled 1968 implying that the primary interest was to capture the prevalent mood of the time. Through studied pacing, location shooting, and a very of-the-moment soundtrack over a backdrop of unabashed admiration for the look of LA, Demy creates the atmosphere of someones life. The lack of structure mirrors George’s reality. What stands out for him in the unfocused sprawl is is the very thing he avoids facing – his inevitable call to war. Like the rest of the youth drifting around Los Angeles trying to live meaningfully, George’s entire life is at the mercy of external forces creating the perfect climate for that particular blend of disappointment and romance that is Jacques Demy’s specialty.