Don Draper goes to the movies. A lot. And now that he’s technically unemployed he has plenty of time to see every single film that gets released. At the beginning of Field Trip we see Don in the theater, watching a man drive after a woman on the streets of Los Angeles.
The movie he’s watching is Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, and it’s the most on-the-nose cultural reference we’ve seen on Mad Men in a long time. It can be excused because Model Shop isn’t a particularly well-known film, even among those who are fans of Demy’s classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - although it should be, as it takes place in the same cinematic universe as that film.
Model Shop is a sequel to Demy’s first film, Lola, which in turn spun off a character to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and you thought the Marvel movies had a lot of continuity); it’s also the filmmaker’s first American work. Demy was part of the French New Wave, but he was slightly different from many of his counterparts in that he approached classical Hollywood forms with less of a deconstructionist intent. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, more or less, just a great musical, and he cast Gene Kelly in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Model Shop is very different, though, and it reflects the emerging New Hollywood movement (which had been profoundly influenced by the French New Wave), although subtly eschewing that movement’s nihilism.
How on the nose is Model Shop when it comes to Don Draper’s life? Gary Lockwood, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey (possibly name-checked in the title of next week’s episode, The Monolith), plays George Matthews, a creative man without a job, with a model/actress girlfriend whose Hollywood career is taking off and who is going through his days in a fog of resigned emptiness. Familiar? George is 26 and wants to be an architect; the city of Los Angeles itself, which some see as ugly, inspires him with its poetry. But he’s having a hard time connecting with life, especially as a draft notice hangs over his head. He’s rented a fancy old car but is behind on payments, and the lessor would work out a deal with him if he had just bothered to return any of their phone calls. He needs one hundred bucks to keep the car, and so he sets out to find it.
Demy’s film understands Los Angeles completely. Most of the movie takes place in cars, and the pre-metropolitan vistas of LA figure prominently in almost every scene. George drives through familiar locations, capturing a snapshot of what the city - and more importantly, its people - looked like in 1968 (the film was released in February of 1969). For an Angeleno or someone in love with the city (or in Don’s case, someone whose love is in the city) Model Shop is an irresistible snapshot of a specific moment in the life of the city. Don must have been thinking about Megan, and the streets on which he had walked with her, during every frame of the movie.
George eventually comes across an older French woman who dazzles him. He basically stalks her across town (this is the scene Don is watching in the episode) until he comes to a model shop - a storefront that lets you rent a girl and a camera and take ‘artistic’ boudoir photography. She works there. George, who has just gotten the hundred bucks he needs from a friend in a band, promptly begins spending that money on booking a session with the woman.
She’s Lola, the lead character from Demy’s Lola, moved to Los Angeles after divorcing her husband. Anouk Aimee returns to the role, having in the years since become one of the most famous actresses in the world. Aimee starred in La Dolce Vita (the year before Lola) and 8 1/2, as well as being nominated for an Oscar in Claude LeLouch's A Man And A Woman, making her an asbolute global superstar by the time Model Shop was released. Lola's son, who was seven in Demy's 1961 film, is now 14, and she’s saving up enough money to go home to him. She’s alone, living just one level up from the seedier parts of the Los Angeles sex industry, and George’s advances - he comes to see her twice in one day - wear her down. They go back to her place and she shows him her photo album, which reveals the unhappy fates of the characters from Lola, including Alan Scott’s American Frankie, who has died in Vietnam. George spends the night, aware that he’s being inducted into the army on Monday and that Lola is returning to France, but he makes her promise to see him one more time.
He returns home to find his girlfriend, the model/actress, all but breaking up with him. He doesn’t care. She leaves and he calls Lola’s phone. In the background the repo men are taking his car - he has spent the money he borrowed on seeing Lola. Lola’s roommate answers - she’s already left. George stand there, phone in his hand, looking out at the car being towed away, his girlfriend gone, the enormity of Vietnam looming before him, and he repeats one phrase.
That phrase is so vital that I think it’s the key to why Matthew Weiner had Don watch this film. “I wanted to let her know I’m going to try and begin again,” George says on the phone. “A person can always try. Always try. Yeah, always try.” And that’s the theme of Don’s final moments in the episode, as he says “Okay” to the unreasonable demands placed on him in order to rejoin the firm - he is determined to try and begin again. He can always try. He’s a man who has already begun again, going from Dick Whitman to Don Draper, and he’s going to do it once more.
Model Shop could make that ending nihilistic - it would fit into the New Hollywood mold - but Demy resists. As George drives home the announcer on the radio news says that there’s a new round of Vietnam peace talks happening, and that the war could soon be over. We know, historically, that it wouldn’t end for four more years, but in the film it’s the last thing we hear about Vietnam.
Maybe I’m just reading some small hopefulness into that ending because that’s what I want to see in Don’s story; after so many seasons of breaking Don Draper down the most dramatically exciting - and most unexpected thing - Mad Men could do would be to bring him back, redeemed and changed. Of course his ending, like George's, would be bittersweet - George has learned to try, but it's too late.
In a barely related side note, the band from which George gets his money is a prog rock group called Spirit. They were a real band, and Demy had them write the soundtrack to Model Shop. George’s visit with them is a groovy moment that almost plays like parody, forty plus years later. The band members are stiff and their hippie pad is silly, complete with a baby running amok.
Spirit had some hits, but it’s possible that in the modern day they’re best known as the band that Led Zeppelin ripped off. In one of their earliest American tours Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit, and were clearly influenced by their jazz-inflected prog (one of Spirit’s members was born in the 1920s and had a heavy jazz background). Zeppelin would play Spirit’s Fresh Garbage at shows, and then in 1971 they released a song that would become one of the most famous rock tracks ever and would be very familiar to those who had bought Spirit’s eponymous 1968 debut record (featured onscreen in Model Shop). See, Stairway to Heaven rips off the song Taurus. Listen, it kicks in around 43 seconds: