One of the most celebrated and influential movements of international cinema is no doubt, French New Wave. This movement, that began in the late 1950s and continued into the 1960s, is known notably for the work of directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, with films like The 400 Blows and Breathless. While most French New Wave films graced the screen in black and white, with plots reminiscent of Hollywood genres like gangster film and film noir, there was a director painting French screens with effervescent, candy-coloured hues of lyrical wit. Jacques Demy is a director that stands apart from the rest, with screenplays that were a tribute to the Hollywood musicals of directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donan. Demy’s cleverly written screenplays intertwine with similar themes (chance encounters, nostalgia, abandonment) and characters. His deviation from the traditional conventions of French cinema delivered a musical unlike any other: The Young Girls of Rochefort.
Just as the 1967 film is an homage to the Hollywood musical, the tributes to it have been returned, most notably in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, making it one of the most influential musicals to date. However, for many years, this wasn’t the case. It was overshadowed immensely by Demy’s previous musical venture, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, receiving a lukewarm reception, and disappearing quickly. It would take decades for film historians to see it on the same level of genius as Cherbourg, and equally as long for it to receive a re-release.
Michel Legrand’s memorable music is immediately set into motion as the opening credits roll, with the emphasis on dance, character, and the American musical tradition observed immediately with the arrival of the film’s musical troupe on the bridge to Rochefort. The men and women of the troupe – notably the two cocky dancers, Etienne and Bill (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) – exit their vehicles and begin to dance with rhymic precision in a number reminiscent of the opening of West Side Story. The criss-cross of unrequited love, lonely damsels, and singing sailors isn’t a new plot to Demy’s repertoire, but it’s the film’s audiovisual richness that makes it different, as the characters continually sing and dance amid the openness and white buildings of the seaside town.
The themes of love and nostalgia are ever present as the film’s characters dream of finding their other; pondering on the might-have-beens and on what’s going-to-be. The story follows twin sisters, Solange and Delphine, played by real-life sisters Françoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve. They run a dancing school, with Delphine teaching ballet and Solange composing her own music; both dreaming of a gayer existence in Paris, and both still waiting for their “ideal”. Unbeknownst to Deneuve’s Delphine, she has chance encounters with the man of her dreams throughout the weekend the film is set. Maxence (Jacques Perrin), an artist drafted into the navy, has painted a portrait of his ideal woman, who looks very much like Delphine, which she sees on display at the art gallery of an ex-beau. Demy makes it seem impossible that the pair will ever meet, until the very last seconds when Maxence hitches a ride with the musical troupe that Delphine is traveling with to Paris. Three years later, Deneuve and Perrin are cast as lovers in the film, Donkey Skin. Demy’s way of letting the audience know that they do end up together after the lights dim on Rochefort.
If the audience was disappointed in the absent run-in of Delphine and Maxence, there’s still lots of love to go around. Enter touring concert pianist Andy, played by one of Hollywood’s dancing kings, Gene Kelly. Solange accidentally runs into him (literally) on the street, subsequently dropping the score of her piano concerto, which Andy retrieves and later plays as he daydreams of Solange. Despite the age-old trope, younger woman falls in love with an older man and vice versa, their love is sweet and develops quickly, accompanied by a beautifully simplistic dance number upon their reunion. Their dance takes place at one of the film’s central locations, the local music store, with its white walls providing a pure contrast to the film’s vivid colours. Another brilliant example of Demy’s love of chance encounters involves the music store owner Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) and Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), the twins’ mother, who runs a café close by (and the story’s focal point). Long ago, the pair were once engaged, with Yvonne leaving Simon because of his name. Not only would “Madame Dame” sound ridiculous in her eyes, but “Monsieur Dame” in reference to Simon sounds the same as the traditional French greeting “Messieurs dames,” and is a running joke throughout the film. Yvonne sings of regret for having left him, while Simon sings of longing for what could have been, leading to an ending absent of missed opportunity like Delphine and Maxence.
Along the town square and cobbled streets of the picturesque Rochefort, people dance as if it were as natural as walking, and people sing Demy’s delightful lyrics as if it were as natural as talking. If there’s one thing to be celebrated about this classic, it’s the exhilarating blend of song and dance, with each member of the cast getting their moment to shine. “Chanson des jumelles,” performed by Deneuve and Dorléac, is perhaps the film’s most memorable number. The choreography is buoyant and simple, with the sisters looking directly into the camera as they, perfectly in sync, sing an anthem for anyone “born under the sign of Gemini.” When Delphine and Maxence sing about their ideal, the delicacy of the music is interwoven in an expression of visual emotion, in the same way that the love of Simon and Yvonne is brilliantly delivered in a musical theme sung on separate occasions by each character. The casting of Gene Kelly adds to Demy’s desire to pay homage to Hollywood musicals. The moving dance sequence he shares with Dorléac is actually a recreation of a dance number Kelly did with Leslie Caron in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris.
Demy’s films often reflect on the darker side of life, but for the most part, Rochefort is all sunshine and rainbows. However, the cinéaste couldn’t resist adding a murder subplot to tie everything together, reminding the audience that people make mistakes and love can end badly, but that the risk is worth taking.
The Young Girls of Rochefort is streaming on FilmStruck and has been released on Criterion Blu-Ray & DVD.