The Young Girls of Rochefort: Not the Same Old Song and Dance

Braque, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Matisse . . . C’est la vie.

—Maxence in The Young Girls of Rochefort

Life is disappointing, isn’t it?

—Kyoko in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Broadly speaking, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is loved in France but tends to be an acquired taste elsewhere. From a stateside perspective, its launch in the U.S. in April 1968 was relatively inauspicious and uncertain. In the New York Times, Renata Adler began her two-paragraph notice by saying, “The Young Girls of Rochefort, a musical that opened at the Cinema Rendezvous, is another of those strange, offbeat movies produced by Mag Bodard in which a conventional, gay form is structured over what would be, in its terms, a catastrophe.” (The three other Bodard films she had in mind were Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur, Michel Deville’s Benjamin, and Demy’s previous film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) And almost a year later, in her famous essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Pauline Kael noted in passing, “A movie like The Young Girls of Rochefort demonstrates how even a gifted Frenchman who adores American musicals misunderstands their conventions.”

Young Girls is, of course, a French musical, not simply an effort to duplicate a Hollywood one. It was shot on location in Rochefort, is intricately and beautifully scored by Michel Legrand (with lyrics by Demy), and features many of the key players in French cinema at the time: Catherine Deneuve costars as Delphine, playing a twin to her real-life older sister, Françoise Dorléac (as Solange), in what would be their only film together (Dorléac died in a car accident a few months after the movie opened); Danielle Darrieux (the star of The Earrings of Madame de . . .) is the twins’ mother, Yvonne, and the only cast member who does her own singing; Michel Piccoli, the hero of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, plays Yvonne’s long-lost lover, the unfortunately named Simon Dame (which would have made her “Madame Dame”); and Jacques Perrin—who subsequently became an important French producer as well as a writer and director—is cast as Maxence, a sailor and artist whose imagined and painted “feminine ideal” is in fact Delphine, a woman he’s never met but who lives only a few blocks away.

One could even call this film quintessentially French—in its cozy, interactive sense of community, played out at a glassed-in café located at the center of the town’s enormous square; in its characters’ unapologetic and intense love of art (both high and low), without any hint of the American association of art with class, from Maxence’s painting to Solange’s kitschy classical music to Delphine’s ballet classes to Yvonne’s fondness for poetry; and in its giddy, indefatigable élan, crossed with the bittersweet premise that we live according to dreams whose fulfillment lies just beyond our reach.

Yet the fact that the cast also includes Gene Kelly (as Andy, a Paris-based composer) and George Chakiris and Grover Dale (as workers in a traveling motor show whose weekend in Rochefort frames the action), and that the movie unabashedly cites and evokes American jazz, On the Town, An American in Paris, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and West Side Story, apparently threw Kael off the track. Oddly, she had less trouble with French appropriations of low-budget black-and-white American thrillers in Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, and Demy’s own borrowings were hardly any less poetic than those of his comrades-in-arms Godard and François Truffaut. But she must have found some of the stylistic collisions in this case harder to swallow. Perhaps she was reacting to the unsettling frissons Demy creates when people on the streets of Rochefort are suddenly dancing while others are standing or simply walking, or when the unsung dialogue at a festive birthday party is phrased exclusively in alexandrines, or when one of the amiable café regulars turns out to be an ax murderer and no fewer than two separate musical numbers are staged around the site of his (unseen) crime.

It’s surely eccentric mixes—shotgun marriages—of this kind that challenge some of the high-spirited frivolity we commonly associate with musicals. And it may be equally disconcerting that this large-scale, essentially tragic musical concludes with a plethora of happy endings, or at least with the ironic and improbable promise of same, some of them destined to occur offscreen. For the vexing yet unmistakable triumph of this movie is that it somehow manages to be both more artificial and more realistic than we expect our musicals to be. Indeed, this is fundamental to what makes it quintessentially French. Already in his first feature, Lola (1961), and in Umbrellas (1964), Demy had established himself as a poet of the everyday rituals of French life—savoring the way that casual acquaintances say hello, or interact in cafés, or run errands for one another, much in the same way that Yasujiro Ozu emphasized the everyday rituals of Japanese life. (And in Umbrellas, he was also keying those rituals to the conventions of continuous song—not precisely those associated with American song- and-dance musicals but closer to those of Continental operettas.) Here he combines this observation with dance and song as well as Hollywood-musical inflections to show some undercurrents of what the characters are feeling, remembering, and dreaming, often all three at once.

Of course, part of what we associate with Hollywood musicals are the technical resources of studio soundstages and the pyrotechnics of certain performers, such as Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and Donald O’Connor. Apart from the elation provided by a few crane shots and Gene Kelly, this isn’t what Young Girls has to offer. With a polyphonic plot of crisscrossing missed connections, ironically built in relation to a closely intertwined community, it is much closer in both its poetic vision and its artisanal techniques to Playtime, which was being made around the same time by one of Demy’s favorite filmmakers, Jacques Tati—a utopian vision undercut by missed opportunities. And part of its peculiarity to American taste suggests a certain philosophical conundrum: the empiricism of Anglo-American culture trying to make sense of some of the Cartesian underpinnings of French culture.

One way of expressing the philosophical paradox of Demy’s films would be to say: “I think, therefore I am, and dreaming is a part of thought, therefore a part of life and existence; ergo, I dream, therefore I exist.” Or, more simply: “I dream, therefore I live.” Consequently, the impressions of both artificiality and actuality in Demy’s work can be highly deceptive: the use of “natural” locations that have been freshly repainted (as in both Umbrellas and Young Girls), the supposed simplicities of fairy tales and “innocent” Hollywood genres complicated by such things as wars in Algeria and Vietnam (Umbrellas, 1969’s Model Shop), military service (Umbrellas, Young Girls), a shipyard strike (1982’s Une chambre en ville), the plight of single mothers (Lola, Young Girls), incest (1970’s Donkey Skin, 1988’s Three Seats for the 26th), and even that ax murder in Young Girls. Critic Serge Daney once aptly described Une chambre as Bizet’s Carmen revisited by Luchino Visconti, and it’s important to bear in mind that operatic and melodramatic modes are as pertinent to Demy’s art as cinematic ones. Furthermore, as a storyteller who, like Balzac and Faulkner, likes to bring back characters he introduced in earlier tales, he contrives to make the offscreen victim of the ax murderer none other than the title heroine of his first feature, Lola (Anouk Aimée)—whom he would subsequently resurrect, in the flesh, in Model Shop. (Originally, Demy wanted to extend his cross-references further by casting Nino Castelnuovo, the hero of Umbrellas, in the Grover Dale part, but the actor proved to be unavailable.)

Most musicals shift back and forth between the story (spoken dialogue) and song-and-dance numbers—sometimes creating queasy transitions around these shifts, when we’re uncertain where we are stylistically. By setting their dialogue to music and proceeding more operatically, Umbrellas and Une chambre mainly avoid these ambiguous zones, which are found in most of Demy’s other musicals, such as Donkey Skin, The Pied Piper (1972), Parking (1985), and Three Seats for the 26th. But Young Girls often daringly places story and musical numbers on the screen simultaneously, mixing them in various ways and in different proportions, which wittingly or unwittingly produces a somewhat different kind of disquiet or discomfort, along with some exhilaration. (Two freakish but brilliantly realized American musicals of the 1930s, Love Me Tonight and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum—the latter, interestingly enough, a Kael favorite— display a related metaphysical impulse to perceive the musical form as a continuous state of delirious being rather than a traditional story with musical eruptions, with comparably destabilizing results.) One of the stars may be simply walking down the street, for example, while many or all of the pedestrians around her are dancing, and she can be seen slipping momentarily in and out of their choreography. The feeling of uncertainty or instability arising from this mixture produces powerful and deeply felt, yet conflicted, emotions—exuberance combined with confusion and a sense of absurdity, a kind of transport underlined or at least threatened by an almost constant sense of yearning and loss. After rewatching Young Girls on French television in 1988, Daney wrote that the film was suffused with melancholy about the characters’ failed lives, thanks to both “the music and the music of the dialogue,” but not at all nostalgic or sentimental about them, especially when these characters addressed their failures with good humor by dancing around them—an approach he found “terrible and moving at the same time.”

One might add that the dialectic between the real and the false in the film matches the unending struggle in Demy’s work between blind chance and overdetermined control (and between chaos and symmetry), reaching a kind of temporary climax here. It’s part of the film’s overarching design that characters who are perfectly matched—Delphine and Maxence, Solange and Andy, Yvonne and Simon—keep missing each other as they go about their daily routines, in most cases not even realizing that they’re in the same city, their matching songs meanwhile expressing their unachieved spiritual symmetries. And even though The Young Girls of Rochefort could be described in some respects as Demy’s most optimistic film—the one in which every character eventually finds the person she or he is looking for—the failed connections preceding this resolution are so relentless that they ultimately register more decisively. Indeed, the split second by which Maxence misses Delphine at the café before he leaves Rochefort might well be the most tragic single moment in all of Demy’s work, perhaps even surpassing the grisly suicide at the climax of Une chambre en ville. By contrast, when this “ideal” Rochefort couple eventually do meet—an event represented obliquely and offscreen, in the final shot—this mainly registers as a sort of offhand diminuendo and postscript, a simple concession to musical-comedy convention. But we aren’t fooled by this sentimental gesture. What reverberates longer and harder is the earlier moment of the characters’ ultimate dreams just missing their realization.

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