La baie des anges (1963)

BAY OF ANGELS (La Baie des Anges)

(director/writer: Jacques Demy; cinematographer: Jean Rabier; editor: Anne-Marie Cotret ; music: Michel Legrand; cast: Jeanne Moreau (Jackie Demaistre), Claude Mann (Jean Fournier), Paul Guers (Caron), Henri Nassiet (Jean’s Father); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul-Edmond Decharme; Wellspring Release; 1963-France-in French with English subtitles)

“The true star of this very French film is the dazzling visuals displayed inside the casino.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s (“The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg”/”The Young Girls Of Rochefort”) second feature is not a masterpiece as was his debut film “Lola,” but it’s a brilliantly stylized and photographed romantic drama noted for its ever shifting moods between breezy and despair as it tells about the obsessive seduction of gambling in contrast with love. Cinematographer Jean Rabier totally captures the lush gambling scene, as he shoots mostly inside the luxurious casinos and sometimes outside in the sunny beach promenades located in Nice and Monte Carlo. The black and white film was long unavailable due to print damage, but has been beautifully restored in 2000 thanks to Ciné-Tamararsis under the supervision of Demy’s widow Agnés Varda–an acclaimed director. It smacks of being a quickie throwaway film in which Demy reportedly wrote in three days while waiting out a production delay on “Umbrellas.”

The twentysomething Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) is a lowly paid bank clerk frustratingly living with his gruff jeweler, widowed father (Henri Nassiet), who takes a dim view on living anything but a safe practical life. The slightly older Caron (Paul Guers) earns the same pay at the bank and is a gambler who lies to his wife about his addiction. He lures the naive Jean into accompanying him to a casino in Enghien, where the first-time gambler wins at roulette a sum of money in one hour it would take him six months to earn at the bank.

After getting such easy money, Jean is hooked. He refuses to go with his father on his vacation to visit his uncle and instead the mild-mannered Jean gets his dad agitated by telling him of his winnings and his plans to vacation for three weeks on the Riviera. In Nice, Jean meets the platinum blonde compulsive gambler Jackie Demaistre (Jeanne Moreau) over the roulette table and she goes on a winning streak. Jean falls madly in love with the older disreputable woman, who is stunningly garbed in a white dress. He’s captivated by her beauty, her elegance and daring lifestyle. The divorced woman from a rich industrialist, who couldn’t put up with her gambling addiction, casts a deadly spell over the vulnerable nice-guy Jean. So obsessed with the thrill of gambling, Jackie has in all likelihood gambled away her 3-year-old boy while she travels around France chasing after the roulette table. While Jean is sadly running away from the drab middle-class life he envisions for himself, if he doesn’t change his ways.

Their relationship swings in extreme mood changes, as it goes according to how they do at the casino. While Jean loves Jackie, she pretends to be using him as a source of luck. It soon becomes apparent that for a chip to play the roulette wheel she would sell her soul. It leads to whether love has a stronger pull than gambling for the edgy ravishing beauty, as Michel Legrand’s romantic piano score accompanies Jackie in the final shot as she runs down the corridors of the casino to fall into Jean’s arms just before he departs for good. At that point we know that this was a romantic film, after all.

The slight story is enriched by the great chemistry between the stars, especially Moreau’s vibrant performance. But the true star of this very French film is the dazzling visuals displayed inside the casino, as the spinning of the wheel of chance becomes tuned to the belief that happiness can only be found by taking a risk.