The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Undeniably, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a perfect masterpiece of filmmaking. But…I sort of loved The Young Girls of Rochefort more. Rochefort is a comedy in the classical sense, as opposed to the definition of a tragedy. Cherbourg is a serious story with a down ending, while Rochefort is very upbeat and does allow its characters to have a happy ending. Now one of those endings is more ambiguous than most films would deliver, but that makes it feel like a Demy movie. We don’t see our characters living happily ever after; we see them happy right now. Sometimes that’s the most you can ask for. Stories have to end, meaning we’ll never know if these characters stay happy. If it’s anything like real life, there will be a series of ups and downs, and you eventually learn how to appreciate the good moments.
A caravan of trucks arrives at the seaside town of Rochefort. They have come to set up a fair in the town center, led by Étienne and Bill. The two men befriend Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), the owner and operator of a cafe in the square. She has two daughters, fraternal twins Solange (Françoise Dorléac) and Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) who teach piano and ballet to the children of Rochefort. They both dream of finding their true loves and moving to Paris, where they will become a concert pianist and a professional ballet dancer, respectively.
Maxence (Jacques Perrin) is a sailor stationed nearby who constantly draws, sketches, or paints the face of a woman he sees in his dreams. She just so happens to look exactly like Delphine. While Maxence is a regular customer at Yvonne’s cafe, he’s never crossed paths with her daughters. Solange frequents the music store owned by Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), and he promises to connect her with his American composer friend Andy Miller. One day, while picking up their little brother BooBoo, Solange bumps into an American tourist (Gene Kelly) and drops a copy of her new concerto. The tourist is enamored because he’s Andy Miller, but the two keep missing each other for their second meeting. You can see how all this would play out.
Like Cherbourg, this is a musical but more of a traditional one. Not every line of dialogue is sung, and there are specific musical numbers. Michel LeGrand gives us more than that, though. The styles of music vary from light jazzy pieces like “Chanson Des Jumelles” below.
Then you have a more serious piece in the concerto which is used to score a balletic sequence.
Dance is another element Demy adds to his repertoire. The opening is a dance scene with the fair workers as they take a ferry to Rochefort and begin setting up. This feels like a classic musical film, and Demy even filmed an English version at the same time he made the French one. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful in the States and was a box office flop. I think that’s because, despite the gorgeous exterior, it’s a movie with more in common with the more introspective independent films of the time than big Hollywood song & dance fests. The Young Girls of Rochefort also feels French in a profoundly twee manner, all the cutesy things you might expect about the country.
One thing Demy is doing is reprocessing American film tropes. Earlier in the French New Wave, there were several filmmakers whose favorite genre of American movies was clearly gangster pictures. They incorporated many of the aesthetics of those movies into their work, like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player. The original films they were inspired by also had darker endings, so the culture clash isn’t as prevalent as they are here. Demy is looking at An American in Paris, West Side Story, and other American musicals that romanticize other places & people while having their plots taken from classical sources. But then he throws these moments of dissonance into the story that cause us to feel like something is off. Some background characters participate in big dance numbers while most people keep shuffling by. Even stranger is the ax murderer subplot, which leads to characters singing about the poor girl (victim) found in pieces by the police. We get two musical numbers centered around these murders and a wild reveal of who the killer is.
Demy’s budget forced him to be much more creative with what he did. There are no intricately constructed sets with lots of moving parts. Almost everything is filmed on location, and even the sound stages are very spartan. The cafe is the most stylized set, and Demy uses it wonderfully. Demy doesn’t want to build an illusory world; he wants to use the genre of the musical to explore his character’s emotions on a deeper level. That is ultimately the true purpose of musicals, to make the interior life a thing of poetry. Listening closely to many of the songs’ lyrics, you find a thread of melancholy. These people acknowledge that Rochefort is a beautiful place, but their lives haven’t always been as beautiful. Yvonne laments a decades-old lost love and how she’s resigned herself to the fact it will likely never happen again at her age.
Demy is also passionate about our dreams being just as important as our waking lives. To have a dream, to want something, is how we know we are alive. While the buildings in Rochefort may be bright, colorful, and bold, and the songs are brassy & energetic, we’re still dealing with real emotions and experiences. Demy gets a bit playful, leaning into the trope of two people destined to be together constantly missing each other. Maxence is about to depart the city and keeps coming into the cafe as Delphine has to excuse herself or is helping out her grandfather in the other room. Even when the two finally meet, it’s off camera, so the audience has to imagine what could happen. Maybe Maxence doesn’t even recognize her from his painting. She’s seen the drawing by this point and knows it’s her, but what if he can’t see it? Maybe they part ways upon arriving in Paris and never see each other again. That part of the story is yours to dream; Demy won’t be filling it in for you.
It is easy to see Damien Chazelle’s influences on La La Land after this movie and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He wasn’t inventing anything new; he was just paying homage to a rare type of musical. If you love the spectacle and joy of Hollywood musicals but want something with much more to chew on, I think The Young Girls of Rochefort fits that perfectly. This is about as good as musicals come, and I’m excited to revisit it one day down the road. Demy’s next film would be a wild 180 turn, set & filmed in Los Angeles and entirely in English, but also a semi-sequel to Lola.