Saturday, 12 July 2014

New-Wave Misogyny

Have you heard of 'Lola', Jacques Demy's film from 1961? I hadn't either until the other week. Lying half-ill in a rented flat in Paris, I stumbled across the cover with the stunning Anouk Aimée dressed as an exotic dancer. Of course I thought - 'must be all French and sophisticated?'

In fact, the whole experience was like falling for someone pretty who turns out to be incredibly dull. The story evolves around the life of Lola, a single mother and cabaret dancer, who waits for the father of her son to return (he'd disappeared seven years previously) while seducing American soldiers and flirting with her childhood friend Roland.

This is neither a tragedy nor a comedy - it is two hours of affectation. In the very lame end, Lola's long-lost beau returns as a rich man in a white Cadillac and a cowboy hat and takes her home. But why does it matter that this film is so bad? 

Maybe because of its peculiar misogyny. Like all female characters shown, Lola is confined to either vulnerability or hysteria, and is essentially lost without a husband. And yet she is not the object of intentional criticism: Demy thinks he is portraying loose Lola with sympathy (and he is, for those times), but that's exactly what makes his treatment of her so outdated. It is not irrelevant that Demy was closeted (although married to feminist filmmaker Agnes Varda) and went on to make some of the campest films in French history, including The Young Girls of Rochefort and the musical comedy The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Jacques Demy and Catherine Deneuve on the set of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

Love Theme from 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg'

So really, the director was projecting his own fragile fate onto Lola at a time when being a woman (let alone a homosexual man) made you a second-class citizen. This now feels outdated and funny but it helps us not to judge Demy so harshly. It's also a reminder of how far both the gay and women's liberation has come in the last 50 years. 

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