(Jacques Demy, 1961)
The opening moments of Lola are a bold assertion of Jacques Demy's artistry. We see a blonde man wearing a Stetson, driving a huge American convertible through Northern France, Beethoven's 7th loud and inescapable on the soundtrack. Raoul Coutard's monochrome photography is glorious, almost luminous, Demy's framing and cutting lithe and powerful. Suddenly the music changes to almost tribal drums, and the rhythm of the editing alters with it; suddenly it is quicker and much more hectic.
Demy is perhaps the greatest, most natural stylist of all the Directors associated with the Nouvelle Vague, with a beautifully elegant appreciation of the way images and music can be used to tell a story, and that was obvious right from this, his first film.
Set in Nantes, his hometown, it centres on Cecile, a returned nightclub dancer (Anouk Amee) and a group of people circling her, from her childhood friend Roland, to an American sailor she sleeps with. There are also a Widow and her daughter both nursing crushes on men, and the women who work in Roland's local bar, all given typically vivid and colourful Demy characterisations. The opening titles dedicate the film to Max Ophuls, and it does play like a spin - of sorts - on La Ronde, circling a group of people connected not by sex, but instead by disappointed love. Everybody wants somebody they cannot have, until a climactic reunion gives the bitter-sweet tone of the film a lift with a jolt of euphoria like something from a fairytale.
Demy was a romantic, and this film was planned as a musical, but budgetary considerations demanded he cut out all of the songs (but one, Amee's unforgettable "It's Lola" number, performed in a basque). Instead, something of the joyous flourishes usually found within musical sequences survives in the way he shot the rest of the film (and would last throughout his career). He moves the camera with an unostentatious grace reminiscent of Ophuls, sliding it around rooms while his characters talk (his blocking is superb) and arrange themselves on furniture. There are also a couple of stunning moments of pure style: a slow motion interlude at a fairground, underlining the emotional high the moment represents for one of the characters, and a couple of marvellous travelling shots along the streets of the city.
That city is a presence throughout, gritty and beautiful and sensually evoked, and it provides a strong backdrop to the little dramas played out between these characters, which are often funny, but always hang over the abyss of torrid melodrama too.
Here are the sort of conversations - about destiny and choice and life - only really seen in the European art cinema of that era, but Demy was a sensitive, witty enough writer, and his cast good enough to make them all work. Cecile - known by most as Lola, her stage name - flirts with becoming a truly annoying lead, but Amee is so beautiful and so charming that instead she seems sad and trapped by her wait for an old love.
Not quite as sublime as some of Demy's later work (which he links back to this by using some of the same characters) Lola is still a lovely, rapturous film.