YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, THE(Demoiselles de Rochefort, Les)

(director/writer: Jacques Demy; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Jean Hamon; cast: Catherine Deneuve (Delphine Garnier), Françoise Dorléac (Solange Garnier), George Chakiris (Etienne), Gene Kelly (Andy Miller), Michel Piccoli (Simon Dame), Grover Dale (Bill), Danielle Darrieux (Yvonne Garnier), Henri Crémieux (Subtil Dutrouz), Jacques Riberolles (Guillaume), Patrick Jeantet (Boubou),Geneviève Thenier (Josette), Jacques Perrin (Maxence); Runtime: 125; Miramax Films/Zoe Productions; 1967-France)

“This is one terrific musical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is one terrific musical, outdated or not. Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) has created a grand work, though when this film originally came out it was panned by some of the major film critics and shunned by the public. Over the ensuing years it has come to be recognized by many for the great film it is. The song and dance numbers are playful, the story is meaningful, the performances are marvelously refreshing, and the plush settings are very colorful. It is a film that borrows freely from the Hollywood musical but adds its own very French touch of romantic spice, allowing the film to spring forth with a burst of vibrancy. The film’s musical score is an easy one to remember by Michel Legrand; its story is told almost exclusively by song, with lyrics by Demy. There is also a tribute to swing music, with a large portion of the scat music being from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton. Johann Sebastian Bach is also brought into the musical picture in a most revered way. The spirited choreography caught my fancy even though it probably was not as perfect as a Jerome Robbins choreography, but it was a good enough imitation that was attempted by Norman Maen’s staging. It is a film where music is everywhere: when a fair comes to town the pedestrians suddenly break out in a dance number. This gives the film an odd touch of reality, as it does not aim for reality. Everything about this film was hopping, there were just no dead spots.

As in his other romantic films, Demy points out that love depends more on chance and good timing than anything else. In this film, there are dreams about meeting the ideal mate.

The film takes place over a long weekend. Most of this operetta is centered in the town square, which is painted in stunning pastel shades.

Maxence (Perrin) is a handsome, blond sailor stationed in Rochefort who is finishing his tour of duty by the end of the week, after traveling the world and being unable to locate his feminine ideal. In his spare time he is a poet-artist. In one of his portraits, he has painted the ideal woman and this hangs in a local gallery owned by Guillaume (Riberolles). The gallery owner plays the heavy, a rich artist who tries unsuccessfully to woo the lovely twin Delphine Garnier (Catherine Deneuve). As a coincidence the portrait painting he has hanging, is an exact replica of what she looks like. When Delphine sees it she is intrigued to meet the artist, amazed that he could draw his ideal woman sight unseen and that he has drawn her. Guillaume refuses to give her the identity or the address of the artist and throughout the film, the two prospective lovers will just miss running into each other. That they don’t meet is odd since her mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) has a refreshment stand where he hangs out and he has even invited her to see his painting.

Yvonne had the twins Delphine and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) from a former lover. Ten years ago she met in Rochefort a wonderful man from the music conservatory who had a funny name, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli). Just as people in real life don’t marry for the silliest reasons, Yvonne ran away from him because she didn’t want to be called Madame Dame. Yvonne had a friend of hers end the relationship by telling him she went to live in Mexico with a tycoon. Dame returned to Paris pining for her love, but now after ten years he has returned to Rochefort to open a music store, not expecting to see her again but hoping to rekindle those happy memories by being in the spot where they first met. Unbeknownst to Dame, he impregnated her. She had a child by him called Boubou (Patrick Jeantet), who is now ten. Dame has never seen the twins since they were away in boarding school though he knew about them, which will explain why he doesn’t recognize them when they meet.

The twins are first seen in a lively skit giving dance and music lessons to a group of children, afterwards they go into a song and dance explaining their close relationship and interests in life and how they feel unfulfilled living in this small coastal town in the southwest of France, hoping to go to Paris soon. Delphine is a dancer, Solange a composer and singer (They were real-live sisters but not twins — after the film Dorléac, 23, who is one year older, died in a car accident). They change into shift dresses (terribly out of fashion in the late ’60s) and gloriously sing “We’re a pair of twins, born under the sign of Gemini/Who love catchy tunes, silly puns and repartee.”

Solange befriends Simon in his store and when he hears what she composes — he tells her about his American friend he attended the conservatory with, the now famous songster who is stopping off in Paris on his world tour, Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Dame promises that he will write to Andy and see if he can get him to give her a break. Solange bumps into the middle-aged stranger in the street, but she does not know who he is (Kelly was 55 at the time of this film — his voice was dubbed and he wore a toupee). When Solange meets Boubou after school he has a tantrum knocking over her bag. But to the rescue comes Andy, as they fall in love at first sight. She is so dazed that she leaves her musical composition on the street, which Andy picks up but doesn’t have an address where to return it to. When he plays her song, he falls in love with her all over again.

Two free-spirited carnies come to town for the fair, Etienne (George Chakiris — he danced in West Side Story) and Bill (Grover Dale). They are looking for a quickie romance, bragging about their exploits with other girls, as they hang around Yvonne’s stand. Their motto is delivered by song: “They call us carnies, but poets are what we are.” They pick up Boubou as a favor for Yvonne and meet the twins, falling madly in love with them. But the girls do not trust them. When the dancers performing in their show run away with two sailors, the two carnies make a deal with the twins that if they perform in the show as replacements they will give them a free ride to Paris.

All the lovers’ stories intertwine — there is even a slasher story thrown into the mix, as the town is fearful that there is a madman on the loose. Demy is in the habit of referring to his other films in his current one. Here the victim is named Lola, who was the heroine in one of his first films- “Lola” (61). Her gruesome murder is made into a jolly song, continuing with the upbeat mood of this surreal film. Everything seems to work no matter how awkward, there was just so much energy and good chemistry that nothing else seemed to matter.

I simply loved it for its vitality, realizing that if I saw it in the 1960s I might not have been so taken with its lack of political perception.

There was an attempt to show how the ordinary citizens of the town are filled with spontaneous song and dance whenever the mood strikes them, as opposed to all the soldiers in town leading repressed lives.

It was a film that had bad timing for its release date, it was the wrong time to pay homage to Hollywood musical films. Such films were already passe and the Sixties revolution was in the air. This film was viewed as an anomaly. But like Demy says: love is a matter of chance meetings. Years later, as this film is released on video for the first time after Demy’s wife, Agnes Varda, led the efforts for restoration. Audiences now have a chance to catch up with a great film that has been passed up through no fault of its own.