Lola is a dancer with a seven-year-old son, and she’s waiting for the son’s father, Michel, to come back to her after having left her pregnant and penniless, to ”seek his fortune”. We doubt that Michel will ever return, but Lola is determined to wait for him, and sometimes sleeps with sailors who remind her of him. But, as, she says, “you only love once”, and if you fall in love again, it’s never the same.
Roland is a restless spirit and a daydreamer who has given up his previous vocations (being a salesman and a violinist) and now is looking everywhere for meaning; for something that does not bore him. In a book store he meets a single woman and her 14-year-old daughter named Cécile, who reminds him of a girl of that name he knew ten or fifteen years ago. The daughter needs a French-English dictionary that the book store doesn’t have, but Roland has one, and offers to bring it over to Cécile in the evening.
Lola’s real name is Cécile, and she is Roland’s old flame. On the same afternoon, shortly after leaving the book store, Roland bumps into her, and his love for her is rekindled. He had been accepting a shady courier job that would take him to South Africa, but now that he spies a chance for a life with Lola, he abandons that plan. She, however, doesn’t love him, but only considers him a trusted friend.
Meanwhile, the 14-year-old Cécile (who, somewhat uncharacteristically, reads science fiction comics!) runs into the American sailor Franky, who was the one Lola slept with because he reminded her of Michel. On her birthday, Cécile goes with Franky to the fair, trying bumper cars and other rides. It’s romantic and innocent at the same time; for little Cécile the sailor’s attention is heady (he also offers her cigarettes), and he, having a younger sister her age, treats her perfectly nicely.
By the end, the incredible thing happens: Michel returns, having indeed found his fortune, and coming to start a family life with Lola and their son. The rejected Roland goes on the smuggling trip to South Africa (even though some of the people who hired him have been arrested!), and little Cécile runs away from home to seek a more exciting life.
The movie is on the brink of being annoying in its old-fashioned view of romance, but it ends up being deeply moving, thoughtful and gratifying. It keeps you guessing as to the outcomes of these strangely intersecting personal stories, and you keep thinking that things will go wrong. And in a sense it is wrong for Roland to accept the smuggling job and for Cécile to run away, but these are presented as those character’s best options under the circumstances. And for Lola, the end is deliriously happy.
What I really like about the movie is its faith in the goodness of human nature. The characters tell the truth (or quickly apologize and confess if they don’t), their trust in the decency of others is never betrayed (Cécile’s mom even tells her that even most strangers are good people who can be trusted), and the things you think might go horribly wrong, never do. This is in stark contrast to the types of conflict most movies are based on; this movie only has the kind of conflict caused by the vagaries of unrequited love and unrealized dreams, and it shows some characters being successful in the pursuit of romantic dreams, and some being unsuccessful. The situations (esp. the way the characters’ lives intersect, often without their being aware of it) are not always entirely believable, but the realism of the human feelings involved is powerfully and admirably conveyed.
I cannot say the movie (or this sort of bittersweet romantic dramas in general) interested me enormously, but in this case the performances were good and the characters felt fairly real. The cinematography was nice, and perhaps very impressive compared to the movies that went before, but somewhat less so compared to those that have come after.
The DVD from Mr. Bongo Films didn’t have much in the way of extra material, but I don’t suppose much extra material exists for a 1961 movie. The picture quality was good.
Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Anouk Aimée, Marc Michel, Alan Scott, Annie Duperoux, Elina Labourdette, Jacques Harden and others.
Runtime: 90 min.