Thoughts As They Arrive
I was with a screenwriter the other day, discussing their script. At one point, the writer asked what they could do to show the passing of time. Among my suggestions was to use a dissolve. The response:
“Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned?”
The question caught me on the elbow. It’s obvious, if you look at a film from industrial Hollywood in the 1930s, that film language has changed a great deal. We’re used to faster cuts; jump-cuts; a more elliptical approach to editing. We expect the camera will be handheld at least some of the time (we probably don’t notice). We don’t require a two-second establishing shot. And on, and on.
These changes, moving along on their own tide, are not always driven by aesthetic choice.
The opening title sequence of Jacques Demy’s 1961 Lola is beautiful for a number of reasons. The gliding white convertible with its blond, white-suited driver; the spacious strokes of the title’s typography against the grey day; the rapturous music. There’s an air of promise and ease that fills the wide screen edge to edge. And there are dissolves. As the fantasy-man we’ll learn to call Michel gazes out at the bay, the image cross-fades from his face - a cigar held between his teeth - to the wide water and back.
It is a mysterious choice. Couldn’t this have been achieved with a simple couple of cuts? Barely any time elapses, so the dissolve isn’t telling us the conventional thing. Then why? I’d like to ask Jacques Demy, but can’t, so I’ll hazard a thought.
When you watch the film - an ironic, tender lap of cross-currents, chance meetings and missings, fallings in love, disappointments, loyalties and snap decisions - to its end, it’s clear that the filmmaker has a story to tell beyond this particular one. Chance and hope are moving through this town in northern France, and beyond it. We know that Lola, the nightclub singer, is the latest in a chain of Lolas: from Marlene Dietrich’s femme fatale in The Blue Angel to Martine Carol’s heartbreaking Lola Montès. But this particular Lola will leave her own film, moving on from its blissful conclusion to reappear, disillusioned, in the sprawling Los Angeles of Model Shop. In fact, none of the major characters in this film stays in town; they all leave for stranger shores.
So that stranger on the shore at the beginning of the film: he’s just arrived in town, but is he already dreaming of other places? The film may be located in a real place, caught with practical lightness by Raoul Coutard’s camera but, in film, time and space are never fixed. Perhaps that’s what those dissolves are: the film itself shifting, letting time expand without waiting for it, hinting at other possibilities.
I agree this is fanciful. But the sensuousness of that opening sequence, if you like it as much as I do, stirs these fancies.
So are dissolves old-fashioned? Yes, they probably are. We now write the word ‘show’ with an ‘o’ rather than an ‘e’ as in Jane Austen. We have cars, not carriages; smartphones instead of Bakelite sculptures. But Jane Austen, the need to communicate, and the implications in Lola go on - and the suggestiveness of dissolves never ends.
Of course, Lola begins with an iris shot. Don’t get me started.
Lola (1961, Jacques Demy)
Available on Blu-Ray & DVD