The director who made Cherbourg look like a studio backlot and repainted Rochefort to match his pastel-hued fantasy brokers no illusions about one of America’s great mythic cities. To him, it is a place where people work and live, where industry and machines rule the landscape and any harmony must be viewed from afar. But coming from the filmmaker who viewed working-class cities in France so lovingly, this - not Hollywood - made Los Angeles beautiful.
This sets the film in deep contrast to avowed Demy acolyte Damien Chazelle, whose new film La La Land views Los Angeles through a tourist’s lens. In part, this distinction is established through profession and circumstance. In La La Land, Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) are aspiring entertainers; their vision of Los Angeles is necessarily idealistic. In Model Shop, George (Gary Lockwood) is an architect, whose only relationship to the entertainment industry is via an actress girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) he’s quietly hoping will leave him. He might decry the everyday design work he’s been stuck with, but he sees the beauty in his surroundings. Mia and Seb need movies and music to mediate their surroundings, and can’t see it apart from that lens.
La La Land rarely sets itself on average L.A. streets, confining them (or suburban counterparts) to snapshot moments in montages. The few full scenes in outdoor locations take place at landmarks - Mulholland Dr., the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Hills. The specificity of place is granted from the outside in, catering to a national audience, rather than from the inside-out, representing a lived experience as a local resident. There’s nothing in La La Land that an outsider wouldn’t expect to see in Los Angeles.
Demy, on the other hand, is obsessed with the city’s intersection between the everyday and the bizarre. The oil pumpjacks are jarring enough, but he also takes us to an underground newspaper, cheap diners, a photography shop staffed by a man in a second-hand tuxedo, gas stations, and parking lots. The eponymous studio, where men can rent cameras and take a roll’s worth of photos of a woman of their choosing, is extremely specific to its time and place, on the border amidst the sex, beauty, and entertainment industries that blanket the city. He keeps the radio on to hear news of Vietnam and classical music. He stops by an older-style house when an up-and-coming band (Spirit, who provides the film’s score) is practicing.
The difference of living spaces highlights a significant change in housing over the past fifty years. In Model Shop, George is out of work and his girlfriend is only auditioning, but they still live in a beachside house (even if it is next to an oil well). Such real estate used to be the province of bohemian and hippie communities; now they’re among the priciest in the nation. Accordingly, Mia and Seb have to share a nondescript one-bedroom with a nagging water stain. While Chazelle’s relationship to Los Angeles seems confined to destinations, he does have an eye for how people live within them.
Much of the difference in how each film approaches L.A. may come down to transportation. In 1969, it was still possible - financially and practically - to just hop in the car and drive around without much aim. Demy learned Los Angeles by driving aimlessly, and gave his film a structure that ensured George would have to rely on his car. It’s under the threat of repossession, and he’s running around town looking to borrow enough to keep it. Along the way, he runs into a beautiful French woman (Anouk Aimée, reprising her title role from Demy’s Lola), and begins to follow her.
The relationship between Angelenos and their cars has changed a great deal since then. In Model Shop, the car is an extension of oneself - George admits he can’t afford his, but just bought it because he likes it. As he drives around freely (some streets barely seem to have lanes), he calls out to friends and moves from easily-obtained parking spots to wherever he means to go without having to cover much distance. In La La Land, Emma Stone drives a Prius, the most practical and widely-seen mode of transport for budget-conscious locals (the film amusingly calls out its ubiquity). In one scene, she has to walk a great distance to retrieve it; in another, it’s been towed before she can get there. In 1969, the car was an easy way to get around and meet people in a sprawling city, and gas was cheap enough to take detours. In 2016, the car is more utilitarian, valuing mileage over aesthetics and meriting interaction only when necessary. Chazelle may not capture the specificity of public L.A. arenas simply because, like most residents, he bypasses them more often than he interacts with them.
Finally, there is the matter of economics. Los Angeles has become much stricter about shooting permits since the late 1960s, when outdoor productions were rare and even a cheap movie could roam the city without much hassle. Now, it’s hard to convince financiers to make a film in L.A. at all. Still, opportunities persist - one need only look at recent films like The Meddler, The Neon Demon, or especially Knight of Cups to see the city captured in a more authentic, modern, lived-in way. Chazelle justifies his decision well by emphasizing Mia and Seb’s reliance on their illusion, but Demy trusts his audience to hold both truths at once. When George speaks about looking over the city, being “moved by the geometry of the place, its conception and baroque harmony,” we’re offered a way of seeing the city that Demy presents more or less straightforwardly. The locations aren’t idealized or even altered as they were for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. We have to face what’s there and try to see it as George and Demy saw it. And often we can - the movement of traffic, the wind in some flags at a car lot, the lights at night, and indeed those grand views from up in the hills that so captivated George, and indeed captivate Mia and Seb for their magic hour tap dance. Chazelle did take some cues from Demy in those city-altering strategies - in a Q&A for the Directors Guild podcast, he talks about installing these old-fashioned street lights all over the city. Instincts like that make me wish we’d spent more time on the streets. Yet however idealized, it’s a vision of the town you can’t get anywhere else.
On January 26, the Aero Theatre will be showing Jacques Demy's Model Shop with actor Gary Lockwood in person.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.