Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jacques Demy | La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels)

a man seduced
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Demy (writer and director) La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) / 1963, USA 1964

As Time Out critic Tom Milne has observed about Jacques Demy’s 1962 film, La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), if the work seems ostensibly to be about gambling, its subject is actually seduction, with Jeanne Moreau not only seducing but ultimately using the character played by Claude Mann as a kind of lucky charm.

That theme is made immediately clear from the first scene of the film, when the hard-working Jean Fournier (Mann), admitting his exhaustion, is offered a ride home with his colleague Caron (Paul Guers) in Caron’s new car. Fournier is surprised since he knows that Caron makes a salary near his own, and he can hardly make ends meet, let alone purchase a new car. 
      That invitation to ride, made as the two handsome men stand side by side at the office, already seems somewhat suspicious, with mild homoerotic undertones, but it leads to something overt when, after admitting that he is a regular gambler at a nearby casino, Caron insists that Fournier accompany him to the casino on his next visit, suggesting that he is sure his friend will bring him  “bring him luck.” 
      Fournier, an obedient worker and good son all his life, demurs, but nonetheless shows up for the trip. Demy and his brilliant cameraman, Jean Rabier, linger over the details of how one gets entry to the casino. One first must join by paying a small fee and then purchase a number of chips or plaques before entry—a pattern very similar, in fact, in some of the raunchiest gay clubs, particularly those with open sex and porn, of the 1970s and 1980s, where one had to join the “club” and buy a certain quantity of quarters before proceeding in to “sin.”

      Of course, the large white marble casinos outside Paris and later in the south of France, are anything but raunchy, decorated lavishly like vast fin de siècle hothouses. But, in fact, Fournier is being seduced by Caron, if not literally sexually --although that is very subtly suggested--at least being seduced into the joys (later described as being better than a sexual rush) of gambling. And, amazingly, the beautiful and innocent Fournier is “lucky” with Caron, as both men win more money than they might have received after weeks of pay in their jobs. Caron follows that episode up by demanding that Fournier join him a week later in Nice and Monte Carlo. 
       I do not want to make too much out of these early episodes. There is no overt homosexuality in these scenes; and even if was implied, it may be that Demy, rumored to have been a highly closeted man in those days (while shooting this film he married director Agnès Varda; he died of AIDS in 1990, as did his then male sexual partner), did not even realize that he had already acted out the second part of the film in these first scenes. Nonetheless, Fournier, symbolically, loses his virginity in these scenes, and what he has already experienced determines that he will not follow family tradition by visiting his uncle during vacation, but, as we might describe it, “go wild,” his strict clock-fixing father even throwing him out of the house for his insubordination.
      The two men have already observed the Moreau character, Jacqueline "Jackie" Demaistre in that first casino as she is being roughly escorted out the door and told never to return for her behavior after losing. And we can already perceive that Fournier (who, after all, is heterosexual) is intrigued by the beautiful blonde dressed in a white Pierre Cardin suit.
      In Nice, after checking into an inexpensive hotel, Fournier is once again asked to pay ahead for his “sinning,” this time by the desk clerk who, when she hears he’s on the way to the casino, demands he pay up ahead so that if he losses he not attempt to sneak out. Again, he must join the casino before buying chits.
     There he discovers the “addicted” Jackie, and, standing beside her, insistently bets on the roulette wheel on number 3, upon which, hearing his assured tone, Jackie also places her last plaque. We discover that, had she lost, she would have forced to sleep in train station and would not have had enough money to return to Paris. But, of course, she wins, the two now working together to stack up a large amount of winnings.
      Their joyous and luminous walk along the beach and later dinner, brings them together through a long conversation in which Jackie reveals she has abandoned her husband, son, and wealthy lifestyle to take such chances, the excitement being worth everything she has given up. If she seems completely assured in her compulsion, we soon discover that her comments often represent a brave front which hide her real fears and loneliness.
       The two meet again the next day, where she again loses everything she has won, he left with only a small amount of money. By now we recognize that the spin of the roulette wheel and ups and downs of winning and losing are very much like love and sex. So we are not at all surprised when Fournier invites Jackie to stay the night in his room where the couple ends up in his bed.
       Being still a man of some rationality, Fournier has saved a little money for his return home, but soon discovers that Jackie, having stolen some of it, has returned to the casino. By the time he reaches her, she has lost nearly all of it again. When she allows a wealthy gambler to ask her out for a drink, offering her, in turn, a few free plaques Fournier—now consumed with jealousy—dares to bet his last plaques, which regains her attention as she joins him in his selected numbers. Their luck returns, and this time they win millions.       
       Jackie now insists they move on to the far plusher Monte Carlo casino, where they will need different attire, a stylish dress for her and a tuxedo for him. She forces him to buy a car, while she pays for the most expensive hotel in Monte Carlo. For one brief evening they live a high life which Fournier has not only never experienced but has never even imagined except in American novels and movies, hinting at such works as Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Yet their relationship remains rocky, simply because of her reckless behavior. And, although she declares that she doesn’t care at all about money, it is clear that her behavior has destroyed everyone previously in her life. And it is equally clear that she will end up by destroying him as well. 
      At Monte Carlo, the next day, the couple loses everything once again. As they leave the casino in dejection, Fournier runs into his old friend, Caron, who declares his has just won, reminding us of that first moment of male-male seduction. 
      Now without anything even to live on—Fournier has been forced even to sell the car—after attempting to reach Caron to ask for help, he finally must wire his father with apologies, asking for money to return home like a prodigal son. But almost before he can share the news with Jackie, having sold her watch she is again off to gamble. 
     This time he demands that she come away with him, but she refuses, losing her last plaque. As she leaves the casino, Fournier stays on to punish her (and perhaps himself), now willing to even gamble away his father’s offering; but Jackie quickly returns to stop him, silently admitting that love is perhaps better than roulette—or, at least, is one and the same.
      As the two walk away in the glorious white of the Monte Carlo sunset, we do not for a moment truly believe that Jackie will be able to suddenly cure her deep addiction, or that Fournier will truly be able to hold her; surely the couple, with his small pay, will not be able even to afford a house in which to live a penurious life. And the level-headed Fournier, having tasted such lavish life-styles, will be unable to settle for the hard-laboring life of his father’s ilk. Accordingly, even with the joyful, closing music of Michel Legrand we cannot see this as a “happy ever after”-ending. Having been so utterly seduced by both man and woman, Fournier will surely end up like his father’s friend—formerly a wealthy industrialist, but now a night watchman—penniless and lonely, or, at the very least, will return to the everyday humdrum of office life with Caron.
      Yet, for the moment, it is hard to resist Demy’s beautifully-wrapped promise.

Los Angeles, August 27, 2016

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