Whether positive or negative in outlook—and whether helmed by insiders or outsiders—most of the late-’60s/early-’70s movies that dealt with the American counterculture tended to adopt a tourist’s point of view, treating the long hair, music, drugs, and revolutionary rhetoric as curiosities, to be feared or forgiven. Whatever the failings of Jacques Demy’s lone American film, Model Shop—which is far from perfect—it’s one of the few movies about life in 1969 Los Angeles that feels like a documentary, not a re-enactment. Demy follows unemployed architecture student Gary Lockwood as he drives around the city, trying to bum some cash to make an overdue payment on his roadster. Along the way, he hangs out with his pals at a local underground newspaper, hears the latest from a buddy who fronts the real-life rock band Spirit, and gets into a raging fight with his aspiring actress girlfriend Alexandra Hay, who blasts him for his lack of ambition and for some pictures he took of scantily clad model Anouk Aimée. This all takes place on the day Lockwood hears that his draft board has summoned him to take his physical. There’s big doings afoot, all in some way associated with the turmoil in the culture at large. Yet Demy only treats the times as a backdrop for another one of his studies of delirious, illogical passion.
Model Shop’s main stumbling blocks are its performances and dialogue. Demy reportedly wrote the script in his native French and had it translated, and the result is a talky film in which all the chatter is flat and on-point, with none of the conversational nuance that a native speaker might’ve brought. The movie builds to a long scene where Lockwood talks with Aimée about his dreams, while she lays out her intention to return to France to be with her son. Aimée is playing the same character she played in Demy’s film Lola, and though one of the main points of the scene is to catch Demy fans up on what the character has been up to, Model Shop grinds to a halt while the two actors spend 20 minutes delivering stiff line-readings just past each other. Prior to that though, Demy shows a remarkable feel for the people and the place he’s exploring, and he evokes hippie-era L.A. with none of the heavy-handedness of Michelangelo Antonioni’s similar Zabriskie Point. From the moment Lockwood spots Aimée on the street and follows her from a mansion in the hills to a seedy nude-photography studio, Demy concerns himself with the geographic and architectural diversity of Los Angeles, and showing how the young people of the era were making it their home.
Key features: None.