Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort is the Oscar-nominated follow-up to his immensely popular and successful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which with all of its dialogue sung was something of a reinvention of the movie musical, an almost experiential musical. Young Girls, on the other hand, is simply a great musical. To be sure, Umbrellas is an excellent film as well (see my take on it here), but while it surely resonates with its tale of love unhappily ever after, and it radiates in attractive Eastmancolor, it’s in some ways hampered by its own novelty. There is of course more to it than merely the fact that everyone sings everything, but to many it’s probably best known as the movie where everyone sings everything. Young Girls is more traditional in that it has dialogue interspersed with the singing and dancing sequences, and the narrative (complex if not terribly original) proceeds in a more straightforwardly absorbing fashion, without necessarily having the music overshadow any customary storytelling. Gloriously composed — visually and aurally — The Young Girls of Rochefort is a lyrically light holiday to this provincial town, with its assortment of pleasant people having their fair share of romantic troubles. Moreover, it’s one of the best musicals the form has ever seen.
As a great musical, it excels in its generic requisites. Michel Legrand’s catchy music is actually better than that in Umbrellas, as are Demy’s songs (understandably so, since in the earlier film the lyrics are basically conversation). Many of these songs act as reoccurring character themes, motifs that summarize and cue associations with their respective dreams, doubts, and feelings. Like Umbrellas, there are times when banal chitchat is rendered musical, and moments when spoken dialogue rhymes, but generally the songs here are clearly distinct segments. The choreography and staging of the dance numbers, both first-rate, are whimsically random yet with obvious structure. They spring from nowhere, and sometimes not everyone shown seems to be on the same page (some townspeople join in while others just mill about as the main players enthusiastically dance around them). There’s an arranged, improvisational quality to the routines; the movements have a vibrancy that nevertheless appears carefully directed. Keeping everything color-coded and connected, cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet works brilliantly with Demy’s pastel designs, with most of the costumes and sets in the hues of an Easter egg.
The whirlwind weekend of the film begins on a Friday morning, with a mosaic roster of interconnected figures, most unknowingly so, all with romance on the mind. There are two freewheeling young men who arrive as part of the fair: Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), sweeping into the modest town like they own the place and mixing and mingling as if they’ve known the residents forever. The other duo is Delphine and Solange Garnier (real-life siblings Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac). They are a “pair of twin born in the sign of Gemini,” the former a piano teacher and composer, the latter a dance teacher, the both of them longing for love, a better career, and a more hip existence in Paris.
Their mother, Yvonne Garnier (Danielle Darrieux), runs a glass-enclosed café centrally located in the middle of town, which is frequented by, among other regulars, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a budding artist who has his ambitions sidetracked by his naval duty. The wistful Maxence has painted his “feminine ideal,” which is hung up in the gallery owned by Guillaume Lancien (Jacques Riberolles) and which looks strikingly like Delphine, whom he has never met. Guillaume, however, does know Delphine and harbors unrequited feelings for her.
There’s also Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), who just opened a music store and encourages the career of Solange. Finally, there’s Boubou (Patrick Jeantet), Yvonne’s youngest child, from a different father than the girls. As it turns out, Simon is Boubou’s dad. He was engaged to Yvonne but their marriage was thwarted because, among other reasons (though primarily), she dreaded the thought of being referred to as “Madame Dame” (it is comical, and some of the other characters can’t help but laugh when she tells her story). She and Simon have no idea that the other is in such close proximity, but both separately wish to reunite. Finally, there’s Andy Miller, a friend of Simon’s. When Solange picks up Boubou from school, the boy throws a tantrum and tosses his school bag on the ground, its contents falling out. As she kneels down to pick everything up, there’s another set of knees there to help. Those knees belong to Andy, who is played by Gene Kelly.
The casting of Kelly here is interesting. The film goes to another level when he appears, his iconic role in the musical genre bringing with it all sorts of connotations and allusions to prior masterworks. The music knows this and dramatically swells. Sure, that’s partly because it’s love at first sight for Andy and Solange, but it’s also because it’s Gene Kelly. His mere presence gives the film an amusing, self-conscious sensibility. It’s 45 minutes in before he appears, and another 30 minutes or so after that before he’s seen again, but his imprint on the film is unforgettable, for reasons not the least of which have to do with his casting as a fine example of the French idolatry for classic Hollywood personalities. (He doesn’t have the name or face recognition of Kelly, but including Chakiris, who starred in West Side Story earlier in the decade, was similarly a casting coup for Demy, the musical fan that he was.) Hollywood aside, in the best Nouvelle Vague tradition there are other, more local cinematic references throughout, from the mention of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim to characters referring to Legrand himself.
Everyone is in place by this point, and unbeknownst to them all, the love they desire is just around the corner. Rochefort is a small town — how long can they continue to miss these corners? A song declares, “Chance often does things right, but it got its wires crossed,” and that’s what moves much of the drama in The Young Girls of Rochefort: barely missed connections, past associations, lost and unfound loves. There’s a lot going on, yet Demy insisted that the plot meant little to him. More important was “a general feeling, a moment in life, just moments of existence.” While some of these moments are temporarily tragic, in that they revolve around individuals deeply pining for love and living with regret, more often than not, they are simply delightful. The characters are smiling, dancing, and carefree. How carefree? When it’s revealed that a recent dinner guest is actually an ax murderer, Yvonne thinks back to his uncooperative behavior at that dinner and humorously decries, “And that fuss about cutting the cake!”
Life and death, love and solitude: it’s all part of the game, and Demy and his characters take it in stride. The always insightful Jonathan Rosenbaum compares the film’s “poetic vision and its artisanal techniques” to Jacques Tati’s Playtime, with a similar “polyphonic plot of crisscrossing missed connections, ironically built in relation to a closely intertwined community.” It’s a spot-on association, and the Tati connection carries even further in the way his films and this Demy picture in particular treat life’s follies and foibles with a subjective bemusement. There’s also a resigned recognition of the tragically uncontrollable. So it’s fitting then, too, that Rosenbaum also quotes Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, specifically when Kyoko ponders, “Life is disappointing, isn’t it?” Rosenbaum does not, however, include Noriko’s response, where she answers smiling, “Yes, it is.” In other words, C’est la vie.
The new Criterion Collection release of The Young Girls of Rochefort is but one part of their fabulous ‘The Essential Jacques Demy’ set. Boasting new restorations of six of Demy’s best films and a wealth of bonus features, this is one exceptional compilation. The disc for Young Girls is representative of what’s included with each title. There’s a discussion between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau, and a short segment from a 1966 series about the film. But the real highlights are a 1966 interview featuring Demy and Legrand, and Agnès Varda’s 1993 documentary The Young Girls Turn 25.
Sure it’s the setting, but is there really any call for a whole town to elaborately commemorate a film like this? Is it a film that is so good it needs to be with someone at all times? Is it that enjoyable, that charming, that memorable? To again quote Noriko, “Yes, it is.”
— Jeremy Carr