Somewhere between Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” and Andrew Slater’s essential Laurel Canyon music scene documentary “Echo In The Canyon,” sits Nouvelle Vague reject Jacques Demy’s time-capsule of the romanticized, and sexualized, Viet Nam War era of Los Angeles, circa 1968. “Model Shop” is a subtle anti-war film for the ages. L.A. might be sunny, but the filter of War turns the brightest colors gray. This is a movie you can dream into, even as nightmare glimpses of American sexual repression and capitalist culture of greed and war come and go.
Hitchhiking, pot smoking, and a handsome lead throwing around a green-and-red 1952 MG convertible like a scattered rug, contribute to Demy’s uncanny study of shifting cultural moods that the city inspired before 1969 came crashing down on hippie culture like a mousetrap. Watergate finished the job a few years later.
Jacques Demy exhibits poetic affection for the sprawling beachside town where an oil rig sits only a few feet away from our rudderless protagonist George Matthews’s ramshackle bungalow that he shares with a shameless would-be actress Gloria (Alexandra Hay). Gloria wants to break up; George (Gary Lockwood) isn’t surprised and doesn’t care. Gloria wants to build a family, George wants to build a career, but doesn’t want to wait the 15 years it will take to develop a reputation that will have him designing gas stations. Then a draft notice arrives for George.
Nouvelle vague-inspired Leos Carax’s 1984 “Boy Meets Girl” shares “Model Shop’s” sense of existential dread for young male characters whose pending military duty colors their emotional interactions with the women they fall in love in short circumstances. Forget “meet-cute,” this is meet-horny-and-depressed, in that order.
The “Model shops” of the film’s title offer men an opportunity to pay to take Polaroid pictures of women in, or out, of their negligées in the privacy of a gaudy-colored room in a shady district of the Sunset Strip. Want to know more? I know you do.
George gets along much better with his male friends than he does with the fairer sex. In one of the film’s most inspired scenes, George visits the Laurel Canyon home of a musician pal. The two friends go into a home studio where George’s friend plays the music for a song he’s writing on a piano while his wife takes care of their baby elsewhere in the house. George silently grooves while sitting peacefully listening to his friend’s work-in-progress. However, when comes to communicating with women, George isn’t socialized nearly as well.
When George sees a lovely woman in white (Anouk Aimée as Lola), he’s inspired to follow her. Discovering that Lola works at a model shop doesn’t dissuade him. Commodification of sexuality can’t be all bad, can it? George takes the bait and takes photos of her in a frilly nothing gown. Once home with the erotic photos and a joint in his hand in bed, George’s live-in girlfriend interrupts his would-be masturbation session. George can’t get a break but on this day of all days, he really needs one. Demy makes George’s inevitable sexual release a suspense element that increases in tension as the picture goes along.
Gary Lockwood (he played Dr. Frank Poole in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) carries the same world-weary vibe of Robert Forster’s news cameraman in character Haskell Wexler’s similarly timed drama “Medium Cool” (1969). The two men look enough alike to have been brothers. Like Brad Pitt’s stunt double Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” Gary Lockwood worked in Hollywood as a stunt man. And similar to Leonardo Di Caprio’s Rick Dalton character, Gary Lockwood was a would-be leading man relegated to doing supporting roles on television.
When he made “Model Shop,” Jacques Demy lived in L.A. with his wife, the great French New Wave maverick Agnes Varda. Overlapping storylines from Demy’s previous movies enter into the narrative at key points. Demy allows his personal history with French filmmaking to weave into the story at hand. Social commentary arrives via LA’s west side locations and streets, such as Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, that hold aromatic nostalgic importance for a pre-internet world when you didn’t have a cell phone crutch to rely on for information, human interaction, and social guidance. The war that rages in Viet Nam reverberates through L.A. like an invisible gas. America’s militarized corporate structure have put George in a maze full of dead-ends. At least he can appreciate the beauty and promise of Los Angeles for all of the good it will do him.
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