A mild-mannered and unassuming clerk named Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) accepts a ride from his co-worker Caron (Paul Guers) who, much to the financially struggling young man’s puzzlement, was able to afford a new car despite earning a similar limited salary at the local bank. Caron appears evasive, but eager to reveal the source of his changing fortunes – leading a double life as a recreational gambler that he has managed to keep secret from his unsuspecting wife and conservative employers – that has recently resulted in a run of good fortune at a nearby casino, concealing the substantial proceeds from his wife by buying the vehicle and claiming to take out a two-year loan in order to pay for it. The prospect of accumulating money quickly (and without much effort) intrigues the usually cautious and rational Jean, and on Caron’s invitation, agrees to accompany him to the casino for a Saturday afternoon outing at the roulette table on the first day of his planned vacation where, upon entering the Enghien casino, catches an unseemly row involving an agitated woman – apparently the wife of a prominent industrialist – being physically escorted out of the casino (and subsequently banned) for attempting to steal from the house. Jean seems instinctively well suited to this game of chance, intuitively sensing, not only the winning numbers, but perhaps more importantly, when his luck is about to turn and should walk away from the table. Having amassed the equivalent of six month’s salary in under an hour, Jean prudently decides to cash in his chips and leave the casino. However, the lure of the casino soon proves too enticing for Jean who, against his father’s (Henri Nassiet) wishes, decides to spend his winnings on a detoured vacation to the French Riviera. Casting an eye towards the higher stake casinos on the promenade, Jean soon finds himself seduced equally by the spin of the roulette and the connected gaze of a beguiling and enigmatic patron named Jackie Demaistre (Jeanne Moreau) – the woman whom he had earlier seen at the Enghien – who sends the young man into an intoxicating maelstrom of risk, total abandon, and l’amour fou.
Jacques Demy creates a sublimely fluid and lyrical, yet haunting tale of love, possession, and addiction in La Baie des anges. Filming in stark black and white, Demy emphasizes visually dichotomy through monochromatic wardrobes, directed lighting, and contrasting juxtaposition of mise-en-scene (particularly in images of the dark interior spaces of the casinos that cut to shots of the idyllic, sun-drenched coastline of the promenade) that reflect the characters’ dualism, psychological polarization, and disparate consuming obsessions: Jean’s seemingly indefatigable romantic pursuit of Jackie, and in turn, Jackie’s insatiable compulsion to gamble. (Note that Michel Legrand’s lush and multilayered piano composition similarly reinforces thematic complexity and texturality through its melodic evocation of drama, tension, and passion.) Demy further incorporates recurring images of spinning roulette wheels and fickle changes in fortune that, not only serve to inherently correlate the volatility of the couple’s relationship, but also to illustrate the implicit diurnal monotony in the thrill-seeking and artificial euphoria of their meaningless ritual (a metaphor that recalls the hedonistic vacuity of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). In the end, it is the couple’s abrupt disconnection from this empty, self-destructive cycle that is captured in the indelible shot of Jackie’s fleeting, fractured images as she runs past a series of mirrored wall tiles in a casino: a consciously dissociative and systematic fragmentation of destructive passions in the face of redemptive love and renewed, existential purpose.
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