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.