Old and French: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

I’ll be doing my best for this review not to just compare this film to Jaques Demy’s earlier musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, (1964), which is a much more famous but, in my opinion, a much less sophisticated film. Where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has many of it’s roots in the tradition of melodrama and Opera, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) has roots in musical theater. The film is a much more intricate, much more fun, and much more energetic entry into Demy’s informal romantic trilogy (Lola [1961], Umbrellas, and this final entry).

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The film centers on a pair of twins, Delphine and Solange (played by real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac), who live in the small town of Rochefort. Solange, a composer, and Delphine, a dancer, yearn of Paris, and decide that at the end of the week they will set out for the big city. We are also introduced to their Mother (Danielle Darrieux) who runs a French Fry restaurant in the city, a sailor and painter who yearns for the Feminine ideal (Jaques Perrin), a music shop owner with an unfortunately silly last name (Michel Piccoli), and two young, charming traveling performers who have come into town for the weekend (George Chakiris and Grover Dale). They’re all brought together by a wonderful score and soundtrack, with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by director Demy.

The sheer number of characters gives the film a lot of breathing room. Every character has their own song, their own moment to define who they are, so none of the characters feel superfluous or shallow. They all have something to add to the theme of the piece, which is simply, “Isn’t it magical to meet someone and instantly be in love?” Every person goes on a distinct journey, but I would wager to say that most of the characters are the same person at the end that they are at the beginning. The problem that most of them face is not internal, but rather external. The major problem of their life is that they haven’t met that right person yet.

The movie is something of a sing-through musical, and the scenes that are not set to music have rhyming dialogue (including a particularly impressive dinner scene at the middle of the second act). The characters effectively show their emotions through song and dance, and the combined use of the two- or lack-thereof- creates a unique emotional language for the film. During songs where characters express longing or regret, their is no accompanying dance. When characters are happy with their lives or are engaged in flirtatious discourse, there is a mix of song and dance. And when, finally, a person meets The One, there are no words that could possibly express their emotions. Their only possible way of expressing themselves is through dance. It’s only natural that the American Visitor of the film is played by Gene Kelly, who graces the screen with that joy of dance that he always brings to the table.

There is almost no way that this film could have had a sad ending. The world that the film inhabits it truly magical, and if the characters don’t meet the true love of their life, they still occupy this magical space, full of music and dance and, most importantly, color. The colors of this film are absolutely spectacular. The vibrant dyes of the wardrobe not only makes the huge cast of characters easily differentiated, but also shows us the different shades in the personalities of the characters. The costumes are not the only source of the color, the world also provides a lush array of tones that makes the whole world complete, and a joy to spend time in.

Young Girls of Rochefort brings the escapist element that we can expect from musical cinema. The brilliant score and songs will become a part of your musical theater playlist. The imagery will stick with you. Your heart will be warmed to the core, as it should be when the characters burst into song.

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