Before the year 2014, I would have hardly been aware of the existence of Jacques Demy and yet came that year that I went to Cannes and had the privilege of seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in all of its marvelous glory in a 50th anniversary screening at the Palais and now I am utterly in love with the man, prone to rewatching and revisiting every amount of his work if I’m just lounging and relaxing. It’s also perhaps the single biggest reason that even so late in the game of being a cinephile I found myself a born-again lover of musicals, both on the stage and on the screen. It’s also almost certainly the biggest reason I am a bigger fan of the Left Bank crew of French New Wave filmmakers (which also includes Demy’s feminist widow Agnès Varda, the experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, and the innovative and political Alain Resnais, all among my favorite filmmakers) over the Cahiers du Cinema clan (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, all also among my favorites but lower on the list than the others). So there’s that I owe to Demy’s films.
Now, of course, it is the year 2017 and in the aftermath of Damien Chazelle’s wonderful La La Land, every halfway cinephile knows Demy’s name and so I don’t really have to give much introduction to the man’s works. And of course, because The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the more opera-based, more canonical, the more dramatic, and the big Palme d’Or winner out of Demy’s output, that’s obviously the one that most find to be his best movie and I will not argue against that. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels like a more accomplished work of art than anything he ever made and it’s an unimpeachable showcase of craft with some of the best music ever made for film.
But it’s not my favorite Demy film. There is just one movie in his output that wows me more and perhaps sits most comfortably as my favorite musical of all time and that’s a relaxed two hours spent in a seaside town by the name of The Young Girls of Rochefort, which I saw the year after Umbrellas in 2015*.
There’s a lot of stories in this town of Rochefort: a pair of twin sisters Delphine and Solange (played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac) teaching music and dance longing for a life outside of there. Their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darriuex) managing a cafe next to a popular convention site as she reminisces on the fiancé she left behind over the embarrassing last name of “Dame”. Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a regular at the cafe preparing for discharge from his duty in the Navy by writing poems and painting and dreaming his “feminine ideal”. Etienne (George Chakaris) and Bill (Grover Dale), a pair of motorcycle salesmen, arriving with their girlfriends and troupe to promote at the upcoming fair happening right at the grounds outside of Yvonne’s cafe. And those are just the one’s we focus most on. There’s the new music store clerk Simon (Michel Piccoli) that Solange is excited to indulge in songwriting talk with, not knowing that he might have deeper connection to her than she knows. There’s the news in the background of a serial killer attacking blondes, something the movie is way too light and frothy to give even the slightest gravity to. And Gene Kelly is in town! Well, obviously it’s just his character composer Andy Miller, but the movie is absolutely happy to show off Gene Kelly (and essentially everybody else in the cast, having grown into icons in one field or another but Kelly was THE international face of musical cinema by the 1960s) and frankly it feels like when Kelly isn’t directing and choreographing himself (here provided by Norman Maen), he’s a lot more relaxed and having a great time.
Relaxed… sigh… That’s the thing that makes The Young Girls of Rochefort so easily rewatchable to me: it’s not in any rush to do anything but dream and thus indulge in the dreams of its characters and it takes great Hitchcockian glee in letting the audience know just how close the characters are to what they’re looking for (ie. absolutely nobody is fooled into knowing that Yvonne and Simon are each other’s ex-betrothed they miss so dearly) while Michel Legrand’s score is so lofty and sleepy and lax beyond the opening song number for the twins “Chanson des Jumelles” which is bouncy and brass-y enough to interest you in the two sister actresses and find them so very capable of holding the screen when they’re on (which is probably why the closest thing to a climax this movie gets is the girls doing a small showcase for the motorcycle salesmen singing “Chanson de Maxence” about seasons in all of their romanticism).
Even while the movie is just cruising within two hours, it’s not boring. Maen’s choreography is balletic in a paced and visually impressive way (I think Chakaris does it best, but the dude has poise for days!) and the very opening scene is just a languid boat ride where the occupants have nothing to do but dance and it’s dazzling before the story even gets a proper start (with a stopped truck on the boat to signal that the movie isn’t going anywhere). Demy doesn’t want to shake you with excitement, they just want to divert us for a little while with the beautiful town shot that cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet’s camera shines brightly on, lightly popping summer colors on the costumes by Jacqueline Moreau and Marie-Claude Fouquet, and all the song and dance your heart could desire with just enough undemanding romantic melodrama in between to skip us from number to number adequately. And if some asshole wants to try to ruin the fun by killing people in the background, Demy won’t even trip.
It’s so easy. And not in a patronizing way, Demy and company just really love this town the same way Spielberg loves Amity Island or Lynch/Frost love Twin Peaks and would clearly spend as much time here with these characters if they could. But Demy also loves them too much to not grant them their greatest desires by the end of the film and send them on their separate ways and the sincerity behind that charitability to its characters makes me long for one day being able to make cinema this charming and complete. It’s in clear opposition to Umbrellas‘ tragedy, but sometimes I just want to feel good watching a movie. And that’s when I return to Rochefort.
*2014 may have been the year I was turned on to musicals, but 2015 is the year I was absolutely affected to re-aligning my whole life on musicals. Not only did I see The Young Girls of Rochefort on a whim at the IFC Center in Manhattan (the morning after seeing Moulin Rouge! in the very same theater), I volunteered at the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Actors’ Playhouse seeing so many musical productions that made me desire to be on stage, I saw The Sound of Music for the first time, witnessed a stage production of my favorite all-time musical Les Miserables, the Hamilton soundtrack was released leading me to discover my dream role in Aaron Burr, and I began doubling down on working in as many musical productions as I could as either actor, stagehand, or musician. So yeah, The Young Girls of Rochefort may be a spearhead for one of the many journeys I undertook in my life.
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