While trying to raise money to prevent his car from being repossessed, George is attracted to Lola, a Frenchwoman who works in a “model shop” (an establishment which rents out beautiful pin-up models to photographers). George spends his last twelve dollars to photograph her, and discovers that she is as unhappy as he.
Los Angeles has served as the backdrop for countless Hollywood movies but in Jacques Demy’s The Model Shop (1969), the French director’s first and only American film, the city becomes the real protagonist, with its sprawling urban landscape, oil derricks, desolate beaches and constant traffic providing a vivid canvas for a contemporary love story about romantic longing and unrealized dreams. Film writer Clare Stewart referred to the film in the quarterly film journal Senses of Cinema as “a road movie that doesn’t go anywhere” and that’s not a putdown, but an apt description of what Demy was trying to create here – a drifting, dreamy mood piece.
On both a visual and conceptual level, The Model Shop is spellbinding, presenting Los Angeles as a cityscape of neon signs, billboards, Standard Oil gas stations, parking lots and people constantly in motion, driving to and fro in cars, chasing unobtainable dreams in the film capitol of the world, a place where cinematic dreams are the main export. Cinematographer Michel Hugo applies a palette of pastel colors to Los Angeles that brings a dreamlike gloss to even the pollution, industrial plants and urban sprawl of the city. The sound design of the film is equally evocative, blending the ambient hum of traffic with an eclectic mixture of music being broadcast from George’s car radio (Bach, Rimski-Korsakov, Spirit, Robert Schumann).
The Model Shop is much less successful in building dramatic interest in the free-form narrative and what happens to both George and Lola due to uneven performances and awkward dialogue. Gary Lockwood, 32 years old at the time of the film, seems miscast as a disenchanted 26-year-old who is too impatient and unwilling to follow the traditional career path for architects. His scenes with Alexandra Hay, playing his girlfriend Gloria, are so strained and unnatural that you can never really fully accept them as a couple who were once in love or even enjoyed a mutual sexual attraction. Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps their lack of on-screen chemistry together is meant to emphasize the fact that they’ve become complete strangers but on a dramatic level, their scenes are inert. Even more ineffective are Lockwood’s interaction with his friend, band musician Jay Ferguson of Spirit (playing himself and not doing a very convincing job) and his occasional philosophical musings, such as his realization that he could die if he’s drafted: “I guess I never really thought about it before. Death, you know – it’s insane!” Even Anouk Aimee, who retains her elegance and an air of mystery throughout, is saddled with some pretentious dialogue and, in one scene, where she is reciting her long, personal history to George, interrupts herself by asking him, “Do I bore you?”, as if signaling the viewer to overlook the exposition in favor of the real story, which Demy has visualized perfectly.