Canon Entry - The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Young Girls of Rochefort walks a fine line between frivolity and melodrama. It is a musical grounded in the real life, though people burst out in song, contrary to reality. The music is catchy, yet deceptively complex, while the lyrics are decidedly mundane. A less forgiving person might even call them trite. We are seeing the town of Rochefort at its best, when a fair is coming into town so of course the streets will be bustling with people and the whole atmosphere would be festive and colorful.
Demy makes no attempt to hide the mundanity that underlies the movie. It is his greatest gift actually, to create these almost otherworldly fantasies out of the ordinary. The story somewhat revolves around two twins Delphine and Solange (real-life sister though not twins Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) who yearn to get away from the provincial town of Rochefort and make it big in Paris. Their salvation seems to come in the lithe forms of two carnies who have come into town with the fair - Etienne (Bernard Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale). We also follow the stories of Madame Yvonne, their mother, (Danielle Darrieux) who regrets letting go of a long-lost love simply because his last name is Dame, and she would have become Madame Dame if she had married him. There are also the young sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin) who is looking for his feminine ideal (which, of course, turns out to be Deneuve’s character) and Andy Miller (Gene Kelly), a successful American composer and friend of Simon (you guessed it) Dame, who owns a piano store in Rochefort, unbeknownst to Madame Yvonne.
Despite the somewhat patchwork nature of Young Girls, the story is not exactly inconsequential to the film since much of the charm is seeing these very obvious misunderstandings play into great scenes and songs. One could safely say that the story is contrived to fit the magnificently jazzy and free-flowing music of Michel Legrand, who died not too long ago as I was planning on writing this Canon entry. Though Legrand’s melodies are incredibly memorable, he is not necessarily a hook-driven composer, and he delights in the operetta-like lyrics and dialogue of Demy’s films like Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Young Girls of Rochefort. His sound is the sound of the French New Wave, and it was no surprise that his music, which was the epitome of cool during the 60’s, would score such varied works as The Thomas Crown Affair and F for Fake.
If Singin’ in the Rain was the most popular musical to reuse old standards to make something fresh, Demy goes whole hog and lifts entire elements from musical film history. Demy saw the Technicolor and bright color palette of Hollywood musicals like The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain and made them an important component of his work. Whereas those older musicals were not nearly as self-conscious in their use of color as Demy is, for Demy, the colors tell their own narrative. Chakiris and Dale of West Side Story, probably another movie musical that Demy was inspired by, wear complementary colors, hinting at the fluid identity that these two share (and to be frank, they really have no distinguishing personal characteristics.) Deneuve and Dorleac wear yellow and pink respectively when few other characters do, with the major exception of Gene Kelly, for perhaps no real reason other than to make them pop on screen and also to distinguish how different they are from the people around them, as if their dreams of escape and romance had manifested in their wardrobe.
When I think about this film, I remember colors and sounds rather than characters and dialogue and, least of all, plot. It’s as if Demy had created an art film, except actually accessible and palatable. The overall effect is more a sensory experience than a narrative feature. This is not to its detriment. Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has a much tighter narrative in comparison to Young Girls, but less magic and more melancholy, which is perhaps why I didn’t respond to that film as strongly the first time I saw it as this one. From the very beginning when the carnies are dancing on the bridge they need to cross to get into Rochefort, it is the overture to the symphony of color and music that we are about to be enveloped in. It is also the sequence that Damien Chazelle most obviously paid homage to in his La La Land in its opening sequence (which is probably why it’s the best sequence in the whole film.)
There are hints of melancholy in Young Girls as well, mainly the sweet sadness of missed opportunity. None of the characters realize their romantic longings by the end of the film, although the film leaves them with enough hope that they ultimately will. It doesn’t seem that Demy favors unambiguously happy endings. In this way, he distinguishes himself from many directors and writers for he knows that the best part of a romance is the build-up rather than its realization. Perhaps Madame Yvonne was right - that living as Madame Dame would have been too much of a burden after years of people making light of that name, no matter how deep the connection she had with her Simon. Reality can be a crushing weight, and one can almost see Rochefort collapse into the mundane when the fair leaves. At least in this film, Demy spares us that inevitability.