Cinema Classics: “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967)

In 1964, French director Jacques Demy’s musical film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Las parapluies de Cherbourg) was an international sensation, winning the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and being nominated for five Academy Awards.  Even watching it today, it’s easy to see why.  “Cherbourg” is unique in that it is entirely sung through, as opposed to having song and dance breaks throughout the film, and the singing often replicates casual conversation.  The music, which was composed by Michel Legrand, combined with the pastel environment that Demy created, and the feature film debut of the incandescent Catherine Deneuve, combined to make a unique and timeless classic.

You may be less familiar with Demy’s follow-up to “Cherbourg”, the 1967 musical “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (Les demoiselles de Rochefort).  Unlike “Cherbourg,” this film is formatted more like a traditional movie musical, featuring big dance numbers filmed on location in the town of Rochefort and catchy songs written by Demy and composed by Legrand interspersed between regular dialogue.  Once again, Deneuve stars, this time alongside her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac, who plays her twin in the film.  They play Delphine and Solange, young women who have success teaching ballet and music, respectively, but long for a different life outside of their small town.  Delphine breaks up with her boyfriend, a gallery owner, but when she sees a portrait in his gallery that looks strikingly like her, she becomes determined to find the painter.  Meanwhile, while picking up their younger brother from school, Solange meets and has an immediate attraction to Andy (Gene Kelly), a foreigner who is actually a composer Solange is looking to meet.  Other characters’ stories and loves intersect over the course of the weekend, including the girls’ mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), the owner of a café; Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), the owner of the new music shop; Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a sailor who is also a poet and painter; and Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), two carnies traveling through town with their show.

Gene Kelly with Michel Piccoli

Demy carefully crafted the look of “Rochefort,” and it boasts similar candy-coated environments and costumes as “Cherbourg.”  The story is populated with many characters, but after a series of missed connections, they are all resolved satisfactorily by the end of the film.  It is distinctly Demy’s film, but also very apparent that he is paying homage to the movie musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which by this point in time had largely fallen out of fashion as the studio system collapsed and audiences began to favor films that featured a more gritty realism.  This is obvious not just in the cinematography, the music style, and the choreography, but also in the casting of Kelly and Chakiris, two direct links to that era in Hollywood.  Chakiris performed in many musicals, including “Brigadoon” and “White Christmas,” but is most well known for playing Bernardo in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story,” for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  Kelly, of course starred in and choreographed many of the most famous and enduring Hollywood musicals of the 40s and 50s, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “On the Town,” and “An American in Paris.”  By the time he appeared in “Rochefort,” Kelly was over 50 years old and getting past his prime, but dancing is as good as ever.  It’s obvious that most of his singing and dialogue is dubbed, but in fact, almost every actor in the film had their singing voices dubbed.  Darrieux is the only one who does her own singing.

Real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac play twins Delphine and Solange in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”

Every actor gives a wonderful performance, however, particularly Deneuve and Dorléac, whose real-life relationship as sisters clearly translates to their chemistry in this movie.  Deneuve has since become one of France’s most iconic and revered actresses, and is still acting today.  Dorléac’s story, however, has a less pleasant ending.  A year older than Deneuve, she had already achieved international fame in her film career by the time Deneuve had her debut in “Cherbourg” in 1964.  But in 1967, mere months after the release of “Rochefort,” Dorléac was driving to the Nice Airport, rushing to make her flight, when she lost control of her car and hit a signpost.  She was dead at the age of 25.

“The Young Girls of Rochefort” was a big hit in France on its release, but less so in other countries.  It was nominated for an Oscar for its music score, but coincidentally lost to another musical, the English film “Oliver!”  However, its influence has endured over the decades.  Damien Chazelle cited it as a major influence on his 2016 hit musical “La La Land,” while esteemed filmmaker Agnes Varda, who was married to Demy and present on the set of the film, headed its restoration in the late 90s. 

Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated G.

“The Young Girls of Rochefort” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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