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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

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
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.

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,
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

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
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
’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.