Last year, Sean dived into The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a musical I remember loving but it’s just been a little too long since I’ve seen for me to remember all the specifics of why. Still, I imagine a lot of the reasons were similar to why I had a wonderful time watching Jaques Demy’s follow-up to that film, The Young Girls of Rochefort. Much like Umbrellas, this film is extremely colorful, filled with lots of music, illuminates the mundane, and takes place in a French city that is decidedly not Paris. That said, there is a more traditional Hollywood optimism in The Young Girls of Rochefort‘s approach to the movie musical, which makes it all the more beguiling why it has never been super beloved outside of France.
The narrative of the film concerns several interweaving and often narrowly parallel storylines where characters are either meeting or barely failing to meet each other. The film begins with a group of carnies (though immaculately dressed ones) arriving in the small town of Rochefort to put on a fair for the weekend. The main two guys from the fair we follow are Étienne (George Chakaris from West Side Story) and Bill (Grover Dale), who often frequent a café owned by Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), the mother of the titular young girls living in Rochefort. We’re then introduced to those girls, fraternal twins named Delphine and Solange (played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac) as we see them leading a ballet class before singing a song where they basically tell the audience what their deal is (I know… musicals are lot more fun to watch than explain).
We’re also introduced to a sailor in town named Maxence (Jaques Perrin) who is enamored by a painting he sees of Delphine, which was made by her mediocre painter boyfriend, and he spends the rest of the film wanting to but never quite meeting her. Another unfulfilled connection comes when Solange, an aspiring composer, talks with her older friend who works at a music shop who knows the famous musician Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Solange and Andy do cross paths at one point early on, but Solange doesn’t know it’s the man who could ignite her career, but still feels a certain spark with him, whoever he is. From there, we mostly just see these characters interacting in this tiny corner of town before the fair finally goes off and some of our characters finally meet. Oh, and one of the recurring background characters turns out to be an ax murderer, whose first victim is apparently the title character from 1961’s Lola (an Easter egg for those keeping track of the Demy-verse).
As I mentioned earlier, much like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, this is an extremely colorful film, with just some immaculate costuming and set design combined with the old-world charm of a living, breathing European city. However, here those colors match the buoyancy of the material, as the dancing and choreography give the film an “anything is possible” vibe that feels very specific to that period in which the mid-’60s turned to the late ’60s. Still, there is a kind of down-to-Earth quality to the story in its depictions of everyday people haplessly going about their day while dreaming of something better. It’s this quality that doesn’t make Demy feel so out-of-step with his French Wave contemporaries, even if he was clearly far more of a romantic than any of them.
Another aspect of The Young Girls of Rochefort that feels both like a continuation of and a contrast to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is its music. This is another close collaboration between Jaques Demy and Michel Legrand, whose score is jazzier and lighter on its feet this time around, and whose songs from the film have already wormed their way into my ears. Though Rochefort doesn’t have the same approach as Cherbourg where the entire movie’s dialogue is sung, it’s still jam-packed with a ton of songs with the occasional dance sequence or dialogue scene thrown in. Also, the score must have been the main inspiration musically for La La Land out of all Demy’s films, since some of these songs are so reminiscent of La La Land that I’m surprised Legrand didn’t receive a writing credit on some of that film’s songs.
Similarly, watching The Young Girls of Rochefort also makes it easier to see why Greta Gerwig has cited Demy as an influence on the upcoming Barbie movie. This all makes the film an interesting midway point in the development of the movie musical. Sure, it has some of the modern touches that show why Demy has come to be a reference point for recent directors looking to inject some new life into the musical. But at the same time, the film is an homage itself, since it wears its American influences on its sleeve pretty obviously, with its use of floating camerawork, eye-popping technicolor, and Gene Kelly presiding over the film’s festivities. It’s the type of thing that convinces you that there are always new ways of reinventing the same old song and dance, even if you’re employing one of the same old dancers.