French filmmaker Jacques Demy made his name with highly
stylized musical films, notably
LOLA in 1960 and the award-winning
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
(1964). In the latter, Demy broke new ground by having the
dialogue sung through and foreshadowed the pop operas (like
EVITA) that became stage staples since the 1970s. THE
UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
was clearly one of Demy's greatest
screen accomplishments and in 1996 a restored version enjoyed a
theatrical re-release. Now, his 1967 musical
Les Demoiselles de
Rochefort/THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT
, restored in wide
screen color, is enjoying a similar resurgence.

Unlike
UMBRELLAS which seems timeless, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF
ROCHEFORT
screens as dated. That is not to say there is not much
to admire and enjoy, but the audience with whom I saw it
(consisting of many people not yet born when the film was released)
treated the film as campy hoot. As soon as the film began and
characters began to indulge in the choreography (which, admittedly,
is the weakest part of the film), the audience began to laugh. One
woman seated behind me was in hysterics throughout the entire
film. As the film unspooled and the audience continued to treat the
material as a joke, I became more and more frustrated and upset.
Granted, Demy was unsuccessful in his intention to create a paean
to classic American movie musicals, especially those of Vincente
Minnelli, but the film can be enjoyed as a time capsule, capturing
some of the spirit of 1967. Demy uses all the traditional
conventions of musical comedy, lovers kept apart until the end,
mistaken identities, songs of romantic yearnings, etc. but adds
dollops of what contemporary audiences find absurdities. The
near-miss meetings of lovers elicited guffaws as did the 60's
costumes. Yes, the site of a woman emerging from her bedroom
after a full night's sleep in full makeup with a hair out of place now
may seem amusing, but screen nearly any film made before 1970
and that was the convention. And a lot is lost in the translation; the
subtitles approximate what is being sung, but the English
translations lose some of the flavor. Several jokes and puns are lost.

In setting out to create this homage to American musicals, Demy
chose to hire an international cast. In interviews, the director
repeatedly said that Gene Kelly was his first choice for one of the
roles, but Kelly could only commit to three weeks of shooting. Demy
had hoped Kelly would undertake the choreography on the film and
when the American dancer demurred (he would work only on his own
two dance routines), Demy was forced to go with a lesser talent,
Englishman Norman Maen. Ironically, Kelly's vocals had to be
dubbed as well because of the time constraints so it is a bit jarring
watching another voice emanate from that well-known figure. Kelly's
dancing is the liveliest part of the film, although even his work
seems left-over from
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and any of several
other seminal works. Maen, on the other hand, seemed to know only
a handful of dance steps which he employed over and over again to
rather boring visual effect. No matter how Demy tried to move the
camera, the large set pieces choreographed by Maen all come across
as warmed-over Vegas. (In a 1976 interview, Demy admitted he
didn't care for the dancing. "[Maen] choreographed his first ballet
like a ballet seen from the third row of a theater and it didn't work
at all, we had to refilm it entirely. . . . I was inhibited by the
choreographer who kept saying you couldn't dance with this or that.
It wasn't true, Gene [Kelly] told me afterwards . . . ")

  THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT centers on fraternal twins,
the blonde dancer Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and the redhead
composer Solange (played by Denueve's real-life sister Françoise
Dorleac, who died in a car accident shortly after completing this
film). A commercial fair has arrived in Rochefort bringing with it
Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale, who went on to a
career as a Broadway director and choreographer), who ask the
twins to join their act and then run off to Paris with them.
Circulating around them are the girls' mother (Danielle Darrieux),
the overworked owner of café who pines for her true love Simon
Dame (Michel Piccoli), who unknowingly has returned to Rochefort.
Simon is impressed with Solange's composition and agrees to
introduce her to his old friend Andy (Kelly) who happens to come for
a visit. Rounding things out is a gorgeous blond sailor Maxence
(Jacques Perrin) whose ambition is to be a painter and who has
created a portrait of his ideal woman. The portrait is of Delphine,
whom he has not met; when she sees the painting in the gallery of
her ex-boyfriend, she sets out to find its creator. Part of the fun of
the film is watching how these couples almost meet, or meet the
wrong people (i.e., Maxence hangs out at the café but sees only
Solange, Andy meets Delphine on the street). As in all traditional
musical comedies, by the end everything works out.

The score by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Demy is charming but not
as entertaining as
UMBRELLAS. Demy's lyrics are serviceable and
often hint at darker aspects of life. The performers are all fine. Kelly
lends his movie star appeal while Deneuve and Dorleac are both
enchanting. Darrieux is also enjoyable as is Piccoli. Perhaps the
weakest performances are from Chakiris (who even with his Oscar
for
WEST SIDE STORY was never much of an actor) and Dale. Both
are good dancers but they succumb to the lame choreography. Demy
has created a lovely canvas, however. The bright, slightly
psychedelic costumes and the pristinely unreal sets create terrific
visuals. When the film was initially released in 1967, it was both a
critical and box-office disappointment. Despite its considerable
flaws, though,
THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is like a time
capsule. The treasures it yields are in the eye of the beholder.

     

                             Rating:                  B
                             MPAA rating:        None
                        
Running time:      125 mins.                
                                    
THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.