Director: Jacques Demy
"Of all the New Wave directors who once professed their joy in cinema, Demy remained most faithful to the delights of sight and sound and to the romance of movie iconography."
—David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
Bay of Angels opens with an iris shot of Jeanne Moreau striding purposefully down the seafront promenade at Nice early in the morning, the camera tracking in front of her and slowly away from her. After a few moments the iris opens out to a full-screen shot, lush piano-and-orchestra music wells up on the soundtrack, and as the credits begin, the camera speeds away in a burst of surging momentum that matches that of Michel Legrand's theme music until Moreau disappears in the distance. The whole shot, which lasts a little more than a minute, is one of those that makes you ask yourself even as you watch it, "How did they do ever that?" (My best guess: the camera operator was in the back seat of a convertible with the camera mounted on the trunk of the car as it raced down the promenade.)
After this opening credit sequence, the tone of the film changes completely as the location shifts to Paris, where we meet Jean Fournier (Claude Mann), a staid young man in his early twenties who works as a bank clerk and lives a sedate life with his widowed father. After a co-worker confesses to Jean that he is a compulsive gambler and invites Jean to accompany him to the casino at Enghien near Paris, Jean sees a means of escape from his dull, conventional life. When his vacation comes up, he seizes his chance to "break out" by defying his father and heading for the Riviera and its casinos for a gambling holiday. In the casino he meets Jackie Lemaistre (Jeanne Moreau), a chain-smoking, careworn-looking denizen of the casino who appears to be in her early thirties, and for the next two weeks the two embark on an impromptu love affair and gambling spree that takes them from Nice to Monte Carlo and back again.
Like many of the early French New Wave films—Breathless, The Lovers, Jules and Jim, Pierrot le Fou—Bay of Angels is about what the French call l'amour fou—crazy, wild, impulsive love. Here it's a case of the sexual attraction of opposite personalities. The difference in their natures is apparent from their behavior in the casino, Jean quietly observant and methodical in contrast to Jackie's fervent concentration and capricious spontaneity. It's easy to see the appeal of the impetuous Jackie to a strait-laced, inexperienced young man like Jean, but less easy to fathom the attraction Jean holds for her. Is he simply a docile protégé? A companion in her folly? A convenient source of betting money when she runs out?
He may be all those things at first, but as the film proceeds and we learn more about Jackie, we begin to see that she might actually have a deep emotional need for him. In her life Jackie has lost all: she has sacrificed her rich husband, her young son, her friends to her all-consuming passion for gambling. Demy has said he wanted to make a film that showed gambling as an addiction, like alcohol or drugs. It is true that Jackie seems to have no control over her obsessive need to gamble, yet like much addictive behavior, her gambling seems not so much a weakness of character or a disease as a kind of self-medication, a desperate attempt to erase life's pain by immersion in some sort of compulsive behavior.
The more she tells Jean about herself, the more we see that despite her vivacity, she seems to be trying to escape something—a sense of failure and inadequacy, an inability to achieve any sort of stability in her life, or perhaps the haunting possibility that her life has no significance outside the casino. Highly strung, mercurial, irresponsible, Jackie is all hyperkinetic emotionalism. You can see this in the way she walks down the promenade in that opening shot. Her whole approach to life is like her walk: she moves with the purpose of a person on her way to an important rendezvous, yet she is obviously heading nowhere.
For Jackie, life is lived completely in the moment. Win or lose, risk is all. Every moment of her life is simply a temporary stop on her way up or down, and her destiny is never to arrive anywhere. What she seems to be avoiding even at the peril of self-destruction is stasis. Tellingly, her preferred game is roulette, the wheel pausing only briefly before it resumes its perpetual spin, for in Jackie's world, the only thing of importance—both literally and metaphorically—is the next spin of the wheel. Jackie quickly becomes the center of the movie, and Moreau seizes the role for all it's worth, giving a fierce performance reminiscent of those by the most intense American actresses of the studio era such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Like Davis and Stanwyck at their most incandescent, Moreau suggests that although Jackie is a damaged woman life-hardened on the outside, she still harbors deep within her a vulnerability that can be reached by a naïf like Jean.
Moreau's real co-star in the film is her director, Jacques Demy. Unlike some New Wave directors, though, Demy never tries to upstage his actors and his story with self-indulgent stylistics. Demy dedicated his first film, Lola (1961), to Max Ophüls, in part for Ophüls' renowned use of tracking and crane shots. Although he clearly favors such shots, Demy uses them in a more restrained, less baroque manner than Ophüls, who specialized in period pictures. Still, the key characteristic of Demy's visual style is the sensuous, balletic fluidity of his camera. In a single shot Demy holds the camera in place, pans, and tracks for as long as possible, finally cutting only when absolutely necessary. These lengthy, precisely choreographed shots result in a flowing narrative technique of hypnotic beauty, the whole film in a sense a nearly continuous pas de deux between the camera and the actors.
The other inspiration Demy takes from Ophüls is devotion to the belief in both the destructive and the redemptive power of love. Bay of Angels ends abruptly and rather ambiguously, with Jackie storming away from Jean in the casino after an argument. Jean hesitates briefly then follows her outside and takes her in his arms, and after resisting a moment, Jackie surrenders to his embrace. The film ends with no clear indication of the future course of the relationship. Will Jean's love act as a calmative on the erratic Jackie, or will his placidity be overwhelmed by her galvanic energy? Demy leaves it entirely up to the viewer to decide what comes next. But for the moment at least, Jean's love seems to have subdued the chaos in Jackie.