Perhaps motivated by the success of La La Land, Criterion has reissued two impressive Jacques Demy musicals as separate releases. This all-singing, all-dancing homage to candy-colored vintage Hollywood musicals is a captivating Franco-American hybrid that allows free rein to Demy’s marvelously positive romantic philosophy.
The Young Girls of Rochefort
The Criterion Collection 717
1967 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 125 min. / Les Demoiselles de Rochefort / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date April 11, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Danielle Darrieux, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Jacques Perrin
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Production Designer: Bernard Evein
Film Editor: Jean Hamon
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Produced by Mag Bodard, Gilbert de Goldschmidt
Written and Directed by Jacques Demy
I was going to squeak by reviewing only Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the interest in the new La La Land prompted some emails and messages that tell me a revisit of the charming The Young Girls of Rochefort is a good idea.
Emboldened by the success of Umbrellas, Jacques advanced to his equally personal musical romance Les demoiselles de Rochefort, an ambitious, impressively mounted production that aspires to recapture the effortless charm of the great American dancing musicals. The sentiment is in the right place, and whether or not the magic comes will depend on the particular viewer. The show will have great appeal for diehard musical fans and/or lovers of director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand. Demy’s quirky romantic notions fit in well with borrowed Hollywood conventions. And Demy’s newest collaborator is Hollywood’s own Gene Kelly.
This time the show is not an operetta. Normal dialogue prevails, although often stylized in rhyme. With his wider ‘scope canvas, Demy adds the dimension of dance choreography. The story repeats the cinematic-romantic structure from Demy’s first film, Lola. The stylization of a ‘Hollywood’ musical proves an excellent format for a playful bundle of romantic fantasies.
When music & dance company comes to Rochefort for a big boat and recreation show, eight or so potential lovers criss-cross in the streets, almost making the right romantic connections. Show dancers Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale) must find replacements when their female counterparts decide to run off with sailors. Enter the Garnier twins, ballet teacher Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and piano teacher Solange (Françoise Dorléac). Delphine is breaking up with Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), the owner of an art store. Music store owner Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) is soft on Solange, but she wants to go to Paris to meet the successful composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Simon displays a painting by young soldier Maxence (Jacques Perrin) that looks just like Delphine, although he has never met her. But he does know her mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), who runs a coffee shop in the town square, and tells her that he’s searching the world for the feminine ideal represented in his painting. Yvonne pines for the lover she spurned ten years before for frivolous reasons. Add to that several other characters whose random destinies hinge on chance encounters in Rochefort’s charming streets, and it’s hard to tell who will end up with whom.
The film’s obvious ambition is to revive and refine Hollywood’s abandoned tradition of MGM musicals. Every scene has at least one song, and most combine singing with dancing — if not production numbers, choreographed movement. The leading characters dance on the street, in hallways, just about everywhere. The twenty or so squeaky-clean show dancers perform large-scale numbers in every open space in town. Everybody has a lost love, and can’t wait to sing about them, or sings about the dream person they haven’t quite met yet. The fun part is of course anticipating all these reunions of the heart.
Jacques Demy embraces the wholly artificial charm of the musical format, with its conceit that lovers can subsist on their romantic dreams. Although the lovers can’t see it, our near-omniscient view reveals that glorious romantic encounters and reunions are always just a chance meeting away. Many connections are made on the street, creating a guessing game in which we wonder what the final pairings will be. The charming, deserving waitress Josette (Geneviève Thenier) quietly admires the sailor Maxence, who doesn’t notice her. She stays on the romantic sidelines until the very end, when she suddenly joins the caravan to Paris. Some do find their true and special loves, but it is left ambiguous whether or not one prominent pair gets together. The only bad egg is the possessive Guillaume, who hasn’t learned to give to others, and has the unpleasant habit of playing with a gun.
Several ‘broken-connection’ romances are purposely absurd. It’s pretty silly when Simon Mr. Dame tells Solange a story that all but proves that he must be her long-lost father, yet she does not pick up on it. Yvonne sad story of the past sounds crazy — she told her lover she was pregnant with his child, and then left with another man to live in Mexico — all because she didn’t like the lover’s name! Demy even makes room for some black humor. In contrast to the sweetness of most of the proceedings, a bizarre tangent surfaces about an axe-murderer. The weird subplot is treated as no big deal, yet has two songs associated with it. The overall lesson Demy is pushing is that the secret to romantic happiness is to keep moving and stay in circulation, so as to get lucky and bump into the right person at the right time.
Rochefort is considered the third of a quartet of Jacques Demy romances. It has some tangential connections to Lola, by echoing some of that film’s situations. A single woman is stuck behind the counter of a shop. An American in a white convertible returns to find an old friend. A single mother must fetch her child from school. A potential lover leaves town on foot, alone. Lola is directly referenced at least once, when Yvonne’s older customer Subtil Dutrouz (Henri Cremieux) recalls knowing a certain Mme. Desnoyers from Nantes, who ‘used to be a dancer.’ French film enthusiasts may know that that connection also links Rochefort with the much older Robert Bresson-Jean Cocteau film Les dames du Bois du Bologne.
This dazzling bonbon of a picture is probably not for people who hate musicals. It is rather long, half an hour longer than Umbrellas. At that length, we once or twice would like a break form Michel Legrand’s lightweight jazzy score. The catchy song for the Garnier twins is repeated at least twice too often. Norman Maen’s choreography displays many excellent jazz moves but can feel repetitive as well. The gorgeous sisters Deneuve and Dorléac are stretched to the limit of their abilities, while the pros Gene Kelly, Grover Dale and George Chakiris are a pleasure to see in motion. Demy must have liked West Side Story, for Chakiris is tasked with repeating some of his iconic dance moves from that film.
Gene Kelly has the right spirit, but don’t expect innovation in his dancing — his numbers feel like repeats from An American in Paris. He interacts with some kids on the street, and references his ‘picking up the rose’ moment from Paris, when stooping to retrieve some important sheet music. (just above ↑ ) In Kelly’s big number with Solange, Françoise Dorléac can barely keep up with him. It’s not silly, like Gilda Radner and Steve Martin in the Dancing in the Dark spoof from the old Saturday Night Live, but she’s still not quite ready for prime time.
Dorléac and Deneuve may vamp their way through most of the dancing, but they compensate with poise and grace, emerging every bit as impressive as the most glamorous American musical stars. Their big final duet, in shimmering crimson dresses, seems modeled after Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe’s big number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: lots of posing and hip-twisting. The actresses were of course sisters in real life. The film’s American premiere was dampened when reviews reported the untimely death of Françoise Dorléac in a car accident in Nice. Radiant and fresh, she graced pictures like Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac and Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain.
George Chakiris is obviously the best dancer and a gracious presence, and dances in perfect harmony with Grover Dale. Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli are excellent as lovers from the older generation. Their reunion is the most affecting of the bunch; and Piccoli is the most loveable character of all. We’re told that out of all the actors, only Danielle Darrieux’ singing voice is her own, and not dubbed. Although well synchronized, the prominent voices are easily recognized as coming from new mouths. Kelly’s voice is an okay approximation, yet will sound odd to Americans.
Rochefort looks squeaky clean, and is seen mostly in bright daylight. Buildings are painted in the same bright pastels that dominate all the color-coordinated outfits. The procession of toy-like trucks carrying large boats resembles scenes from the later films of Jacques Tati. Yvonne’s all-glass cafe on the plaza makes an ideal crossroads for the many romantic encounters. It functions as did that distinctive shopping gallery in Demy’s Lola where so many chance meetings take place. Of special note are the stylized costumes, which wisely avoid the fashion fads of the day.
Because they must make backbreaking labor look effortless, musicals are perhaps the toughest genre to pull off. The incredibly complex, perfectly timed and coordinated movement is breathtaking. When seeing last year’s La La Land many of us immediately thought of Rochefort as the closest precedent. Both pictures share the urge to recreate the airy charm of old musicals, and both rely on leading performers that are not professional singers and dancers.
Demy’s free-form style is joyful and optimistic. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will remain the Demy musical everyone will remember, but lovers of dancing musicals may find The Young Girls of Rochefort a delight from one end to the other. Savant thought the romantic windup (with an Umbrellas — like iris out, of course) to be particularly endearing.
Rochefort will likely appeal to the crowd that adored La La Land.
The Criterion Collection’s individual Blu-ray of The Young Girls of Rochefort comes from its older The Essential Jacques Demy boxed set, which is still a great deal if you can find it at the right price. The 2K restoration overseen by Agnès Varda pops everything into bright-colored focus, and the added resolution of HD really helps in all those wide dancing shots.
The film really was shot on the streets and buildings of Rochefort. Ghislain’s Cloquet’s Franscope camera floats and cranes above the action with just the right feeling of freedom. Real street action is visible through the glass walls of the café. All the glass we see in the music store is covered with sheets of color filters. When a door is opened, we can see the colder color temperature in the outside view. Both film and video cameras are now so sensitive to light, that I’m not sure such filtering tricks are still necessary.
The movie is of course subtitled in English, which means that somebody wrote full English language lyrics. This can’t have been easy as they rhyme as well. Some invention was needed, as even I can tell that the French lyrics are saying something different.
The extra interviews and old TV show episodes are identical to the old disc release. Correspondent Jeff Wilson told me to take a good look at one extra, Agnés Varda’s anniversary retrospective The Young Girls Turn 25. The documentary is a must for fans of the film, as it includes interviews with cast members and incorporates rehearsal footage.
Some publicity for last year’s La La Land actually mentioned a kinship with The Young Girls of Rochefort. How do they compare? Demy’s picture is bigger in scale, and more accomplished in most respects. It can’t ‘hide the seams’ of its dances with CGI work – everything we see has to be captured on the set. La La Land enhances its choreography with computerized compositing, and is therefore able to make everything ‘fit together perfectly’ in post-production. The new show has a delightful visual surface, but its lovers are too selfish and egotistical to earn my admiration, to make me care about them. Rochefort has so much going on with so many prospective lovers that it could be called, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Musical. Jacques Demy’s romantic philosophy is warm and generous, and so are his lovable characters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Young Girls of Rochefort Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good – Excellent
Supplements: French television interview from 1966 featuring director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand; Conversation from 2014 between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthomé and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau; Episode from a 1966 Belgian television series on the making of the film; Agnès Varda’s 1993 documentary The Young Girls Turn 25; trailer; illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson