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18 June 2017

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

The Young Girls of Rochefort
Directed by: Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda
Music: Michael Legrand
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, 
George Chakiris, Grover Dale, 
Danielle Darieux, Michael Piccoli,  
Jacques Riberolles, Jacques Perrin, Gene Kelly
Let it be known that I was not a great fan of Jacques Demy. When my husband ordered Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), I managed to sit through about 20 minutes of ‘singing’ before I gave up. When people on screen are singing every single word of their dialogues, it gets tiring. (You want to hear a man sing ‘I cannot repair the car; I have a date’?) Not to mention grating. I couldn’t relate to the plight of any of the characters because the singing irritated me so much. Expressing an emotion in song is one thing; ‘singing’ prosaic dialogue is another. Suffice it to say that my husband and I disagreed thoroughly on the artistic merits of what’s apparently a classic. I went up to bed, and probably escaped being murdered by my exasperated husband.

Recently, he ordered Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort). Luckily for me, I didn’t realise it was by the same director. I’d blocked the previous experience from my mind, and even Sadu’s mention of Jacques Demy didn’t ring any warning bells. If it had, I think, I might have gone up to bed right away. However, I’m glad my brain wasn’t working. This film was, in my opinion at least, much better than the little I saw of the previous one.

The plot, what there is of it, is simple enough, and takes place over a long weekend, Friday through Monday. Twin sisters Delphine and Solange (real life sisters, Catherine Deneue and Françoise Dorléac) have a dance studio where they teach dance (Delphine) and piano (Solange). 
Born under ‘the sign of Gemini’, the twins are tired and bored of their lives – Delphine has just broken off a relationship with Guillaume Lancien (Jacques Riberolles), the egotistical owner of a gallery in town – and are desperate to go to Paris, where they hope to meet their ideal men, and a better life. 
When a fair comes to town, and Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), two ‘carnies’ who are travelling across the country advertising the motorbikes they sell, need two girls to pull in the crowds (their original act decamps), the girls agree to perform in return for a ride to Paris.  
The twins’ mother, Yvonne Garnier (Danielle Darieux), runs a small café in the centre of town. She had, once upon a time, given up the man she loved because he had a silly last name. She now regrets it, but otherwise seems happy enough.

Simon Dame (Michael Piccoli), the recipient of Delphine’s hopes regarding her musical career, has come to Rochefort in a bid to forget his fiancée, who left him ten years ago;  Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a soon-to-be-demobbed sailor has the soul of an artist, and is searching for his ‘ideal femme’. 
They are all searching for someone to love, and their paths will cross and criss-cross in the space of these four days. How they meet (or not), and how the denouement plays out, forms the crux of this two-hour film.

The plot isn’t so much a ‘plot’ as it is a continuous expression of this search. It’s an expression of longing, for an ideal love on one hand and a lost love on the other. And in between, it’s a pastiche of music and colour – both saturate every scene, every frame in the film.
Purely as a film, the story it tells is trite and often, mawkish. Playing out in the colours of Demy’s imagination (co-directed with his wife, Agnes Varda) with the wings of Michael Legrand’s jazz-inspired musical score, and some excellent acting all around, however, Le demoiselle de Rochefort becomes a light, fast-paced entertainer. 

Opening with a richly-coloured song sequence on a suspended bridge, the scene segues into the twins’ apartment as they celebrate their twin-ness (Nous sommes une paire de jumeaux, Né dans le signe des gemins). (The suspension bridge is one of only 24 'transport bridges, or ariel bridges ever built. As of 2014, only 12 of them are still in use.)
While Catherine Deneuve has the star wattage, her sister, Françoise Dorléac (who tragically died soon after this film was released; she was 25) gets better screen time. 
Deneuve was no dancer, but George Chakiris (of West Side Story fame) and Grover Dale more than make up in that department. 
Depite being named for these two young women, however, the film did give enough space and time to the others', especially M.Dam and Maxence.  

The sub-titles keep the core of the original dialogues intact, and maintain the rhyme of the original lyrics (Julian More) with ingenuity, if not preciseness. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort was Jacques Demy's homage to the Hollywood musical. With Gene Kelly coming in for an extended cameo, and George Chakiris, the American inspiration was secure. 
However, the treatment of the film is purely French. Unlike the usual Hollywood musical, the choreography 'moves' along with the main dancers, with random people joining in at various times. The fact that a little boy (Boubou Garnier/) falls asleep after partaking only too well of champagne, or that a musical can also refer to an axe-murderer? That can only happen in France. 

If you like old-style musicals, with a soupçon of French flair, and want to watch pretty people in pretty costumes, dance around a town painted in pretty pastel colours, do watch this film. Even the melancholy is coloured with sweetness. Its joie de vivre is definitely an antidote to gloomy news, and dark skies, and a general mood of despondency.

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