When it opened in 1969, New York Times critic Vincent Canby assessed French director Jacques Demy's "Model Shop" as "a bad movie, but a sometimes interesting one." It's easy to understand how Canby- or any viewer- could come to that conclusion. However, watching the film today, it has a lyrical and occasionally beautiful quality. Demy, who made a splash with the international success of his 1964 film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", was inspired to make "Model Shop" after visiting Los Angeles on vacation. He was mesmerized by the city and decided to make a cinematic valentine to a place that many others criticized for its pollution and congestion. Ah, but as Preston Sturges famously quipped, "The French, they are a funny race", and Demy saw only the positive aspects of the city, which gives the film an unusual aspect. At a time when Johnny Carson was making night cracks about L.A.'s smog levels, Demy saw it as an appropriate setting for an offbeat love story. It's difficult to describe "Model Shop" because not much happens in it. The film traces 24 hours in the life of George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26 year-old hunky guy who has graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Architecture. When we first meet him, he's in bed with his petite blonde girlfriend Gloria (Alexandra Hay). Before they even get dressed, they're embroiled in a bitter argument, which we are led to believe is a daily occurrence. This is a relationship on the rocks. Turns out George is a lazy deadbeat. He refuses to look for a job in his chosen profession because he objects to working for crassly commercial corporations, which sounds like a cop-out similar to what many unmotivated people might invoke. Gloria points out that they are dead broke and he has no plan for changing the situation. Gloria isn't burning up the want ads section in the newspaper, either. She's a bit of a ditz who dreams of being an actress and spends most of her time being sexually exploited by opportunistic producers and casting directors. She clearly isn't George's intellectual equal but when she strolls around the house in her bra and panties, it's easy to see why he's made the decision to stay with her.
The film kicks into gear when a repo man arrives at George's house (which bizarrely is situated directly next to an oil rig that operates 24/7) to take away his prized, vintage convertible MG, a luxury he can't afford but can't live without. He buys a few hours time by promising to raise $100. We then follow him around L.A. as he tries to hustle the money from friends who are as broke as he is. He has a chance encounter in a parking lot with an exotic looking woman (Anouk Aimee) who he immediately becomes obsessed with. She's the picture of class and elegance and George creepily decides to follow her. She ends up entering a luxurious home in the Hollywood hills. Hours later, he is motivated to return to the place, only to find her car gone and a disembodied voice from inside the house tells him she was never there and to leave the property. By the kind of sheer coincidence that can only happen in movies, George spies her later in the afternoon on the street and follows her to a seedy Skid Row "modelling studio" where sexually frustrated men can "rent" a model for a 15 minute session for $12 (only $20 for a half-hour!) during which they must remain chaste but can photograph the model in a tacky boudoir setting (film and camera included.) He learns the woman's name is Lola, and it turns out she's the same character Aimee played in Demy's 1961 film "Lola". George snaps a few photos of her and they engage in some awkward conversation before he departs. We follow him as he makes some other pit stops including visiting a small counter-culture newspaper where his friends offer him a job. He's interested but makes a fateful phone call to his parents only to learn that he has received his draft notice and must report for induction in two days. Adding to his misery, his father jovially equates getting drafted to fight in Vietnam to the good times he manged to enjoy in the Pacific campaign in WWII. George, however, is emotionally devastated and fails to see the allure in risking his life in the hope of enjoying some male bonding. Distraught, he returns to the modeling studio and this time engages Lola in conversation. Turns out she is an immigrant from Paris whose husband deserted her. She has a 14 year-old son in France who she is trying to support but is about to throw in the towel because she can't get a work visa and has to rely on the demeaning "career" of posing for naughty photos. Although Lola initially rejects George, she is moved by the fact that he really seems to be in love with her. They are two young people who are going through a life crisis and before the night is over, they share a single lovemaking session before George leaves for the army and Lola catches a flight back to Paris.