Despite being heavily influenced by Hollywood films, almost none of the French New Wave directors of the ’60s jumped over the Altantic and make films there. François Truffaut almost made Bonnie & Clyde; Jean-Luc Godard was also offered it, but turned it down. Jacques Demy is the only one to actually make a “Hollywood” film out of the core group of critics-turned-filmmakers, with his 1969 cult classic Model Shop. Louis Malle and Roger Vadim did as well, but it’s arguably whether they were part of the French New Wave per se, partly because their films were often quite different and also because they weren’t involved with Cahiers du Cinéma at all.
Model Shop has gained much-renewed interest 50 years after its initial release, mainly down to one man… Quentin Tarantino. Before his latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was even released, he was already bigging up the influence of this late ’60s flop on his movie, and it is apparent almost instantly on first viewing. Both films use the city of Los Angeles, and primarily the neighbourhood of Hollywood, as a character. Tarantino’s scenes of Cliff Booth driving through L.A. recall the aimless driving sequences of George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) in this almost-plotless film, although Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has more of a traditional “plot.” The driving scenes in both films are scored by the music the character on screen is listening to as well. Matthews and Cliff live well outside of Hollywood, and both have an oil rig outside their place (Cliff’s home is far worse, as it’s a trailer outside a drive-in movie theatre.) One of the reasons Model Shop would be useful to Tarantino was that the film was set in Hollywood in ’69, and just shows how life was at the time.
Gary Lockwood was not Demy’s first choice. The actor was forced on him by the studio after he requested some actor called Harrison Ford in the lead, who at the time was unknown, just a carpenter and sometimes pot dealer… Jim Morrison was one of his customers, allegedly, and when The Mamas and the Papas’ Michelle Phillips saw Star Wars, she reportedly said “That’s my pot dealer!” Anyway, Ford was vetoed, although as Illeana Douglas points out in her otherwise unremarkable commentary, Ford would’ve been more “poetic” than Lockwood, and that’s probably true. It would’ve also been interesting to see how Ford’s career would’ve turned out if he had starred in Model Shop. Lockwood is like a cypher—it probably didn’t help that he had just came off of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the only human character is a computer. Demy said the casting of Lockwood “had nothing to do with Space Odyssey, but he knew how to move. He’s very natural, very simple.”
Demy, much like Tarantino, created one interconnected “cinematic universe.” Model Shop functions as a sequel to his earlier film Lola, and has references to his other films as well. Anouk Aimée plays Cécile/Lola, and in one scene even lays out what happened to her in Lola and how she ended up in the City of Angels. This would end up being the last film in the Demy-Verse, however. The Model Shop of the title is where Cécile works, and is a place where people can take erotic photos of models by booking a session. George becomes very obsessed with Cécile after he spots her in the street, and starts following her. He has a girlfriend, the “aspiring actress” Gloria (Alexandra Hay), but it’s pretty clear that it’s not a serious relationship for him. His car being reprocessed and a draft notice for Vietnam are both hanging over his head as he wanders L.A.
It’s a fascinating film, and that’s mostly down to its mood and just the general tragic “vibe” of the film. It’s weirdly scored by that awful band Spirit, who Demy and his wife Agnès Varda became interested in after catching their act at some club on the Strip, and then some classic pieces on the radio. It has extraordinary garish production design, which Demy said was because American had “no taste.” It’s a film with a totally French sense of existential dread throughout, and this charmingly dreamlike atmosphere, which was probably how L.A. was in 1969. Lockwood has never been better, but his career was relegated to mainly TV after this film, kind of like Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
The disc from Arrow includes a commentary from the actress/author Illeana Douglas, and sadly it’s a disappointment, with her repeating herself too often and sometimes being factually inaccurate. Philip Kemp does a video appreciation that is slightly better, but doesn’t go into much more detail than the poor reception the film received at the time. Both, however, mention Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood often, and it kind of boggles the mind that Arrow didn’t try to license Tarantino’s introduction and discussion with Kim Morgan for the Sky Movies channel for a season of movies he curated to tie in with the release of his latest film. The disc includes an isolated music and effects track, the French opening and closing titles, the theatrical trailer and TV spots. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell.