Criterion Throwback Review: Jacques Demy’s ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’

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.

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Criterion Month: Françoise Dorléac in ‘The Soft Skin’ and ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’

This essay is written by our guest writer, Carlos Valladares.

One of the most powerful images from the Truffaut adultery drama La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin, 1964) belongs to Françoise Dorléac, whose flight attendant, Nicole, is reduced to uncommon tears by the likes of Pierre, her flabby, academic drip of a lover (Jean Desailly). Pierre, the Balzac expert whose lectures weirdly manage to sell out theaters across France, has just spent the entire night publicly avoiding Nicole in a series of flakes more outrageous and humiliating than the last. When Pierre and Nicole reunite in their clandestine hotel room, the scene is heartbreaking: a two-shot (there are many two-shots in this patient, unjudging study of soured love) in which Raoul Coutard’s camera abandons its neutrality in order to highlight Dorléac’s emotions (anger, disgust, shame) over Desailly’s. Dorléac, who faces the camera and who never once returns Desailly’s gaze, struggles to talk squarely with him, without tears. But she cannot. She tells him she plans to stay in the hotel. “Tonight,” she says, with her sobs now coming in aching staccato bursts, “I realized you were ashamed of me.” It’s hard to watch, since tears do not come easily to the kinds of strong, sometimes zany women Dorléac excelled at playing.

Three years later in 1967, the year of her tragic death, we see peak Dorléac in the role of Solange, the effervescent composer whose music fills the air of Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued Rochefort. In Soft Skin, Dorléac nibbles within the noble edges of an unglamorous film, “an autopsy of adultery” (in Truffaut’s own words). In Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)Dorléac bursts out in a fit of perfect, fab glamor. Her soft face is dotted with freckles. Her red bob weaves up and down as she takes commands of any space (café, music shop, street) around which she stalks or sulks, but never seems to simply step into. Basically, anyone can be made to look glamorous or beautiful or witty in the hands of a good director/cinematographer/hair-stylist. What’s unique about the glamor of Dorléac is the way in which it is so downplayed, so self-evident that it need not be flaunted. Demy’s Les Demoiselles is a perfect example of Dorléac’s democratic impulses in action: Though she and sister Catherine Deneuve are clearly the stars of the film, they never once seem to dominate or distract from the stories of the other Rochefort lovers (Michel Piccoli, Danielle Darrieux, Jacques Perrin, Gene Kelly) as they all struggle to find The One. This is the result of a stellar collaboration between an open-hearted, generous auteur (Demy was one of the cinema’s greatest directors of ensembles) and a just-as-generous actrice. Whether she’s at the center or near the edges of a scene, Dorléac glows with style, charm, poise. With her quick glances, husky voice, and subtle sashay, she’s always asking the people who pass her by: Why strain yourself, darlings?

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