Though he lines up chronologically, Jacques Demy is not often associated with the New Wave. I know him best from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Model Shop.
To put 1963 in Nouvelle Vague perspective, it’s the same year as Contempt, Muriel, and Suzanne’s Career, all of which look and feel remarkably different than much preceding them.
Bay of Angels struck me initially as conventional. That’s not really meant to be a knock. The film, in fact, is really entertaining, and has some gravitas to it. It’s smoothly choreographed – Demy seems to favor a lot of fluid dollies – and uses quite a bit of montage. It reminded me of lighter Louis Malle stuff in a way (but maybe that’s just the era and Jeanne Moreau as the female lead), and in some way of a heavy – and great – Malle: The Fire Within.
Moreau, brilliant as always, plays opposite Claude Mann as Jean. He’s a banker who gets the gambling bug. She – Jackie Demaistre (side note: is it possible she’d be named after the artist Roy De Maistre? It’s a unique name as far as I know) – is a gambling addict.
Much of the film is in casinos, as Jean and Jackie exchange glances with each other and with the roulette wheel. There’s something sweet about Jean. He’s naive and cautious. Mann plays him in a way that the gambling addiction rarely surfaces on his face. I could see an American remake playing out with a montage of sweat, nervous hands, and huge cries of loss. This one is closer to the Melville-cool.
Those dollies are mostly like this one (which, in freeze frame, feels like a Fellini with with its emphasis on luxury, the deep black and whites, and the points of distant light), which starts on Jean and pulls back, revealing Jackie and changing focus to her:
Demy also has pretty active blocking. Here he uses two rooms, some simple pans and a nice push in with Jean to give this scene some added life:
I was reminded of Truffaut’s blocking in this film. It’s simple and fast. Demy’s characters speak quickly and move while they talk. His camera often holds on the listener (usually Jean in this film) while the speaker (Jackie talks a lot) comes in and out of frame.
I loved this moment with Moreau. She walks out of the bathroom and Demy frames her up against this blank, flat wall as she gives a short speech:
It’s so unflattering, but it’s beautiful in how plain it is. It’s anti the film school ethos of “avoid white walls and flat images.” Who cares about that when you have an assured director and an actress that can carry any frame?
Opulence is key in Bay of Angels – in part thematically; Jean comments on it often – and Demy captures it gorgeously in frames like these. A dizzying mirror display that still images can’t do justice to (Jackie’s image flits in and out as she runs towards camera):
And this bit of symmetrical elegance:
Timbuktu is beautiful and difficult to watch. It reminded me in a lot of ways of The White Ribbon. There’s a slow build of gradual fascism, starting with relatively small things, and getting more and more dangerous and foreboding as the film progresses. Both films also look to some historical future (in this case, current) event(s).
The tale of a small village in Timbuktu overrun by jihadists is satirical in the beginning, but never with much humor. The jihadists are contradictory: they talk soccer even though the sport is forbidden, sneak smokes, and dance when they think they’re in secret.
My two favorite moments in the film are when a group sets out to find the source of music – also forbidden – in the town. The night scene of surreptitious surveillance ends with a confused phone call: they’ve found the source of the music. It’s coming from a place of Muslim worship. What’s the protocol to handle this sort of thing?
There is, of course, no protocol, because these rules are new and clearly malleable to fit the needs of those imposing them.
But the best scene of the film – and maybe the best scene of the year so far – is a fantastical moment of young boys playing soccer without a ball (it’s actually the ball that’s been forbidden). It’s transcendent, musical, and one of only a few celebratory and joyous moments, that’s also quite defiant.
The village itself is monochrome and pretty in its own way, as directed by Abderrahmane Sissako and lensed by Sofian El Fani. It’s shot claustrophobically for the most part and in plenty of pretty wides. There are a few moments towards the end of the film that I’d love the opportunity to ask the director about – the camera moves in an unmotivated way. These seem like the only false (and that’s stating it harshly. They’re really just at odds with the rest of the rhythm of the film) steps in an otherwise great movie.