Lola (Anouk Aimée) has the title role in this French New Wave film, but we don’t actually meet her for a good while – and I’m not convinced she’s the lead anyway. Then again, she’s something of a lynchpin holding several very different – and still related – subplots together.
One concerns Roland (Marc Michel), an aimless slacker living in an apartment above a sleepy cafe in the French town of Nantes; he keeps losing jobs because he blows them off, and is constantly borrowing money from the cafe owner and from a neighbor, a widow pining for the return of her own missing son Michel. While browsing in a bookstore one day, he meets Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), shopping for an English textbook for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cécile (Annie Duperoux). Roland has that very textbook and offers to give it to them free – remarking as he does that Cécile was the name of an old childhood friend of his. However, Roland does not include the detail that Cécile was also a major early crush.
Meanwhile, across town, Lola is entertaining Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor in town on leave who is smitten with her. Lola’s been stringing him along a bit – she’s a single mum raising a seven-year-old boy, so she isn’t above a bit of quasi-sex work for the money. Also, Frankie also reminds her of her son’s dad – Michel. (Yep, same Michel). Frankie tries persuading her to come to the USA with him, but she refuses – she’s holding out hope Michel will return one day.
These plots soon cross-pollinate even further, when Frankie runs into Cécile while she is out shopping for a comic book. He’s grabbed the book she wants before she can get to it, so he offers to share it – and she’s soon girlishly smitten with the handsome sailor. At the same time, across town, Lola and Roland run into each other – delighting Roland, for she is his Cécile, all grown up.
Roland confesses to his crush later, as they’re catching up – but Lola turns him down, admitting she is still pining for Michel. It’s enough of a kick in the pants to inspire Roland to try to get some kind of a Proper Job so maybe Lola will change her mind – but then he sees her with Frankie, and starts to feel he’s been played a little. But little does Roland know that Lola is still turning Frankie down for a long-term thing – something which drives Frankie out on a wander where he runs into Cécile again, who’s still just as smitten herself. And while all that’s going on, Michel’s mother keeps insisting she’s seen him in town…
Other critics I’ve read suggest that this is a film full of coincidences and missed-connections, with Roland just so happening to run into Lola just after meeting Cécile, and then just so happening to see her with Frankie just as he’s resolved to straighten out his act. And Lola just barely escapes missing out on a connection of her own later.
But I’m more inclined to think that this film is about how those early childhood romantic obsessions can really stick, and sometimes tend to mess you up a little. Roland hasn’t seen Lola/Cécile in nearly 15 years at the time of the film, but is still carrying a torch for her. Meanwhile, Lola is still tied to Michel – not because of their child, though; she still has some misty, rose-colored memories of a day when he ran into her at a carnival on her 14th birthday and went on all the rides with her, and he was just so darn handsome dressed up in a sailor suit and everything that she was hooked. And to emphasize that, Frankie and Cécile have their own outing at an amusement park, on Cécile’s own birthday, shot in loving slo-mo in a way that suggests that even though Frankie’s about to ship out back to the US, that Cécile is going to be swooning over Frankie’s memory for a long time to come – and this romantic fantasy may have some disastrous results.
I do have one nit to pick – Alan Scott’s performance is fine, but throughout he speaks both French and English with such a strangely clumsy accent that I honestly thought he was a French actor who was trying to sound like an American who was bad at French. His clumsy French makes sense, but the clumsy English was puzzling – especially since Scott was American, born in New Jersey and living most of his life in New York before retiring to Connecticut. However, it also looks like he spent much of the 60s and 70s doing other French film and TV, so…maybe it’s just me. (Incidentally, in the US he and his wife were better known as commercial jingle writers who also did the odd song for Sesame Street. )