Fuck the World, I Love You
In her ongoing Sex Scenes column, Rachel Rabbit White explores how Jacques Demy's 1963 film "Bay of Angels," broke apart the classic "Lovers on the Lam" genre.
What happens to love when luck runs out? "Lovers on the Lam" is an entire genre unto itself: Wild at Heart, Breathless, Natural Born Killers, Badlands, Doom Generation, True Romance, Drugstore Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde, films which often employ an Americana aesthetic, a retro romanticization of a couple who, despite all odds, outrun the law, whose love depends on continuing to run—a fast love that just can’t be stopped.
But in Jacques Demy’s 1963 film Bay of Angels , the doomed lovers don’t run, they lounge, dwindle, and laze. They come together, crumble and fall apart but stay side by side through it all, lush seaside suites and bare hotel rooms, relying on their threadbare luck in gambling—without a greater plan for a heist, to keep them together.
The films forgoes traditional plot, there is no zinging dialogue, no guns, no chase-scenes to move the couple ahead. Instead we stay in a world where a pair of star-crossed lovers are so enamored with each other, in love with the idea of love, that they don’t stop to plan they simply live in the moment. It becomes a meditation on romance as always mediated by capitalism, a meditation on luxury and the price of love. The irrationality of the gambling couple mirrors the phenomenon of being “in love” with all its mysterious, erratic, uncontrollable and inexplicable feelings. Can’t stop our love, the protagonists seem to dare, as they go on gambling and living from hotel room to room. But who is trying to stop it?
Unlike couples in the usual “on the run” fare these two aren’t taking anyone else down in their spiral. The enigmatic platinum blonde Jackie, a divorcee (played by Jeanne Moreau) and lanky pretty-boy Jean (Claude Mann) are only on the run from themselves, destroying only themselves as they embrace moments of freedom and a certain shared joie de vivre. It’s perhaps a more “feminized” reaction to the specter of love in the face of a society that demands clear and respectable roles from its lovers.
In its taste for Americana, the "Lovers on the Lam" genre often takes a page from the sexploitation flicks of the 1960s—we fully expect to see our couple speeding in a vintage convertible while simultaneously having sex in cow-girl position, Berettas ablaze. But with Jackie and Jean there are no graphic depictions of bodies in all their sweaty passion, no sing-song pet names and it’s clear that we don’t need their many declarations of love to believe in it; as Terrence Rafferty writes, although we often glimpse the lovers in crowds, in casinos and beaches it’s as if a hush falls over them, as if we see the lovers behind constant glass. But we as an audience can tell that they are fucking, if not by how attractive they are as a couple, from their long glances, embraces, their sotto voce tousles about money problems. Like all couples falling in love they are completely lost in the still of their own world.
French journalist Marie Colmant notes in a Criterion Channel talk on the movie, that while director Jaques Demy is interested in life on the margins, the heart of his works are always his complex female characters. “Demy is talking to women” she says, “but he’s also talking to homosexuals, to outcasts, he talks of these people to these people.”
It’s Jackie who sets the values of the couple, Jean learns from her what it is to live on the margins and in the moment. When they first meet Jackie tells him how she lost her husband and child to her lifestyle choices and asks Jean if he ever wants to get married. He replies that he was once engaged once but “at the last moment, I think I got scared. I saw what I'd turn into. I saw a sensible life ahead, with no risks or surprises. So I broke it off.”
Jackie stands against this sort of life, she’s risked everything to not give into the system of the family and marriage, of romance mediated by capitalism and patriarchy, in her life of gambling she stands against the duty, the quotidian drudgery of being a wife, that doomed apex of respectability and romanticism. (It also can’t be overstated her “gambling away” a wealthy husband and a child would have registered as utterly scandalous to 1963 viewers.)
Her story is also a mirror for any woman who has felt these discontents and for her love—however complicated—is still a site of resistance.
When the couple are up on their winnings, the high is infectious. “I didn’t know this kind of life still existed,” says Jean when the couple have their first ‘proper’ meal with champagne, a band and dancing on a terrace, “at least not outside of certain American novels...this opulence. And you.” They lose the money and succumb to scrounging for change to share a scotch. When they win again they buy a convertible, two evening gowns, an ostrich stole, a tuxedo, and a hotel suite in Monte Carlo with room service dinners.
In Hollywood’s endless taste for romantic subjects, Jackie is a woman questioning, even if she remains stuck in the endless loop of love under patriarchy and capitalism, living under material and structural imbalances. Love exists only within culture, and her self destruction at the site of marriage might be symptomatic of a certain feminized subordination; but her story is also a mirror for any woman who has felt these discontents and for her love—however complicated—is still a site of resistance.
When the couple splurge on a posh hotel suite, Jean asks her: “Do you like this luxury?”
Like all of Demy’s women Jackie is powerful—perhaps the most powerful because of what she’s lost. She’s powerful because of what she’s not afraid to lose—for the fact that doesn’t value money, and it's an active disrespect that fuels her power. She answers Jean:
“Yes and no. It amuses me sometimes. But I don’t mind not having it… I don’t like money, you see what I do to it when I have it. If I loved money I wouldn’t squander it. What I love… is this idiotic life of poverty and luxury and also the mystery, the mystery of numbers and chance.”