Though best remembered for his musicals and his fairy tale adaptations, it is important to keep in mind that nearly all of Jacques Demy's movies end sadly. Loves are lost, hopes are dashed, and fate is cruel. Even when there are happy endings, there are lingering ambiguities, or we learn later, in a subsequent film, that the happiness was short-lived. And yet, Demy's best films are filled with exuberant color and music and moments of wonder. Emotions are heightened, mirrored by sumptuous art direction and scoring. Demy's films are gorgeous to look at and to listen to, especially his tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals, "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort," or "The Young Girls of Rochefort."
Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac play a pair of twin sisters, Delphine and Solange, who live in the seaside town of Rochefort with their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), and long to get away to Paris. The sisters are at the center of several interconnected stories about various characters in Rochefort. There are the carnies, Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), who have come into town with the traveling carnival. There's Yvonne's ex-fiancé Simon (Michel Piccoli), who has returned to town unknown to her. There's the sailor, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who is searching for his feminine ideal, and surely is meant to be Delphine's true love. And last, but certainly not least, there's Andy (Gene Kelly), an American composer who bumps into and becomes smitten by Solange.
With jazz-infused music and songs by Michel Legrand, the cast decked out in glorious pastel colors, and several large scale choreographed set pieces, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" is an endlessly charming watch. The sisters' introductory number with Deneuve and Dorléac in giant matching hats is a dollop of perfectly executed whimsy. Then they meet up with Charkiris and Dale, and become two pairs of joyous dancers, filling the screen with more motion and energy. And then there's the sight of Gene Kelly, who was over fifty at the time the film was made, dancing through the sunny streets with more vitality than the cast members half his age. The American in Paris had returned, and was in love again.
And yet there are threads of darkness that weave through the whole film - the café patron who turns out to be an axe murderer and Delphine's gun-toting lover being the most obvious. At its core, the story is built on all the characters having these unlucky near-misses, again and again. The ones who are perfect for each other never quite manage to come together the way they should, sometimes for the most trivial reasons. While "Young Girls of Rochefort" is much lighter than Demy's "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," it has moments of the same melancholia, of regret and disappointment. It's more interested in exploring the longing for love, and the memory of love than love itself. Even the ending only hints at a happy conclusion for Maxence and Delphine without actually giving us one.
The production was highly ambitious, and reportedly chaotic. Demy had never orchestrated anything so large scale before, and had to wait years for Gene Kelly to become available. He had to significantly scale down his original plans, changing the location and removing references to his earlier films. Due to lack of time, nearly all the actors had their singing dubbed, even the ones who were perfectly capable of delivering their performances in French. After Gene Kelly declined to handle the choreography, the task fell to the relatively inexperienced Norman Maen, who Demy clashed with. More than one critic has noted that the dancing is the least successful element of the film.
And yet, nothing could stop the joyous, breathless, New Wave joie de vivre of "The Young Girls of Rochefort." There's a sponataeity and a freshness to the film, even after nearly fifty years, that is infectious. The lush visuals still pop, the music still soars, and Demy was at the height of his career and filmmaking prowess. Even if he didn't get the mechanics of the Hollywood musical quite right, he certainly captured the spirit of them. Delphine and Solange would be right at home in any American musical.
However, because they exist in the darker, less forgiving world of a Jacques Demy film, their youthful liveliness also has an unexpected poignancy.
What I've Seen - Jacques Demy
Bay of Angels (1963)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Model Shop (1969)
Donkey Skin (1970)
The Pied Piper (1972)
Lady Oscar (1979)
A Room In Town (1982)