Model Shop Review
When you think of Jacques Demy, the acclaimed French New Wave filmmaker, what first comes to mind? His love for the emotional honesty of the musical genre? Perhaps his ability to pack every frame with vibrant, meticulous detail? Maybe even his marriage to his contemporary Agnés Varda? I highly doubt for the vast majority of people that Model Shop, his first and only American film, would come to mind. As a slow, short, dismal movie, it feels a far cry from the emotional intensity and constant forward momentum of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the film that brought him international recognition and indirectly lead to the creation of his most forgotten feature. And although I understand why the film is usually put aside in discussions of the director, Model Shop remains an interesting product of the end of the decade that absolutely nails a pervading feeling of loneliness, and is certainly ripe for reexamination via an Arrow rerelease.
Reflecting the directionless character at the heart of the film, it simply tracks its listless protagonist George through a relatively uneventful day in his life, filled mainly by his attempts to scrounge $100 from friends, and following a mysterious, beautiful woman to her job at the titular shop. Each scene of him meeting up with friends, including the band Spirit who provided the beautiful lullabies of the soundtrack outside of the diegesis, is split up by montages of George driving around in a car he barely owns, moving through the city without purpose in moments surely seen by Tarantino before he made Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. At times, this depiction of the length of a day through the eyes of an unemployed layabout is unbearably dull, but it nonetheless effectively conveys his loneliness and dissatisfaction. Eventually, though, day turns into night, and having just received his draft notice for the Vietnam war the hours begin to pass more and more urgently as he contemplates his mortality and mistakes.
In some ways, Demy’s film is a perfect distillation of the ideas of the New Hollywood movement, with an unmotivated male lead, a critique of Hollywood artificiality, and an investigation of taboo subjects like drug use and the widespread consumption of pornography. But Jacques Demy doesn't make Scorsese movies, and to me, this film reads more as a half-formed New Wave work, lost in translation both literally and figuratively when displaced to another continent. His script, following translation by Carole Eastman, feels dry and awkward, not helped by the strange and cold performances given in this film by Gary Lockwood as George and Alexandra Hay as his estranged girlfriend Gloria. The only actor who excels is Anouk Aimee, reprising her character Lola from Demy's film of the same name, who injects a Jeanne Moreau-esque feeling of jaded passion into an otherwise hollow film.
This isn't to imply that the film is more bad than good by any means. In some ways, and through a kind interpretation, Lockwood's understated performance does assist in the film's wider investigation of emptiness and artificiality, only displaying any true emotions when the film comes to a close and he yearns once more for a fresh start. There are also some truly innovative ideas put into this film that we may take for granted now - the return of a character creating the sense of a cohesive universe, for instance. The documentary realism established by shooting on location and using the span of a single day allows the film to become a time capsule in retrospect; as a movie that captures the tired end of an eventful era, filled with lost dreams and new fears of death and ageing, Model Shop truly excels.
As part of a wider reinterpretation of the film, the special features do assist in providing a broader context for the film’s existence. An isolated music track lets you listen to Spirit's low key psychedelic tunes, arguably the best element of the movie, and the video A City Full of Poetry by Phillip Kemp provides a defence of the film that also serves as an insightful watch. There is also the option to view the titles in their native French, as well as the usual culprits of the trailer and an audio commentary track (by writer and actress Illeana Douglas). Of course, this Arrow release provides a 2K restoration of the film essential for anyone making their way through Demy's filmography.
It's hard to recommend Model Shop for people who aren't Demy completionists or ardent fans of late 1960s cinema, largely due to its slow pace and lack of direction early on. But if you stick with it and watch it as you would any other art film, a fascinatingly ambivalent critique of Hollywood emptiness and a one of a kind record of late 60s fatigue can be found, as well as the fingerprints of other directors who no doubt took inspiration from this film that Sight and Sound referred to as a 'hidden gem'. Ultimately, this is one for the collectors, not for those looking for an evening of entertainment and intrigue.