' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Bay of Angels (1963)

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Bay of Angels (1963)

Jacques Demy’s “Bay of Angels” opens in a Parisian bank where Jean (Claude Mann) works. The scene, in the sound of numbers being crunched, in the similarity of the black suits, black ties and white shirts, less an emblem of finely cut cool here than a standard-issue uniform, feel distinctly airless. And though the notion of gambling is suggested to him by his co-worker Caron (Paul Guers), this airlessness feels like just as direct a contributor, a yearning to twist numbers into something more stimulating. And yet. Even after the film soon transitions to gambling halls, first nearby and then in scenic south France, there is deliberate sameness to the seemingly disparate locations, not simply in their monochrome but in their low watt ambience. Demy furthers this effect in the way he shoots the scenes of betting, typically around craps, where the dealer’s professional disinterest is palpable and the editing scheme, a workmanlike presentation of the chips falling into place and an emphasis on human close-ups, belies little destiny in the tumbling dice and pure desperation in those who pin all their hopes on it.

That might make “Bay of Angels” sound like a dour affair; it is anything but. Oh, it flirts with the idea of becoming a cautionary tale as Jean, who lives at home, is explicitly warned by his father not to be tempted by the sin of gambling or else. If this suggests Jean will sneak around once he gives in to the compulsion, he instead tells his father right off and flees for Nice. And though he does eventually place a call to his father for some quick cash, that potential storyline is never followed through just as the movie never resorts to any other sort of traditional predicament from which Jean must extract himself. And while “Bay of Angels” does demonstrate the dangerous lull gambling holds, it only does that by sort of going all the way around and then coming back out the other side, which Demy achieves through his other main character, Jackie, played by Jeanne Moreau.

If Moreau managed to both embody and transcend the femme fatale archetype in the masterful “Elevator to the Gallows”, in “Bay of Angels she personifies the loneliness and sadness that a gambling addiction can engender even as she improbably floats above it. Indeed, she does not so much enter the picture as just appear, sitting at a roulette table looking bored – no, not bored, detached from life itself. Yet when Jean enters the frame, standing on the opposite side of the table, looking down on her as the camera peers over her shoulder, his and our gazes are united, suddenly entranced as she and Jean place an identical bet and she almost seems to plug back in, triggering what improbably feels akin to a fast-moving slow burn, nights of gambling and gallivanting that span the rest of the movie until it suddenly ends.

Jackie is a divorced mother, yet mentions of her child feel incidental, not as if she is trying to suppress it but as if she has shed that along with her skin by the side of some French country road. Consider the suitcase she hauls around, technically allowing her to make threats of leaving but emblematically giving the sense of someone who lives out of it, epitomizing her thirst for the moment. The Moment might be a film cliché but Demy and other French New Wave masters excelled at acknowledging those cliches and infusing them with life. Why Demy has Jean acknowledge the cliché out loud. “I didn’t think such a lifestyle existed anymore,” Jean says to Jackie. “I mean, except in the movies or certain American novels. This hotel, this terrace, this band. This opulence. And you, too.”

She looks like something out of a movie, her costuming popping off the screen even in black and white, her vivaciousness standing both in deliberate contrast to so much vapidity of gambling halls and even standing out in shots placing her on beautiful beaches and empty streets. She carries Jean along in her wake, entangling him in the circular logic of her win/lose/win/lose/etc. lifestyle, which is given breathtaking thematic heft in the closing sequence where she threatens to leave – him, the casinos, the south of France, all of it – only to turn around and return to his arms, their romantic embrace like a spiritual vice squeezing down on the last of their souls.

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