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).

the-young-girls-of-rochefort-1.png

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.

Old and French: Belle de Jour (1967)

Every once in a while you get to discover a classic movie. What I mean by this is exactly what happened when I watched Belle de Jour: I had always known about this movie. I had seen the poster, heard the title, known it to be a classic, even brought it up in conversation, all without knowing what the movie was actually about. I often got it confused with La Dolce Vita, and the two movies are pretty phenomenally different. So, the other day, when I read what the actual plot of Belle de Jour is, I was able to be really really excited about this movie that came out 50 years before I was born. I watched it immediately.

The plot that grabbed me so is a uniquely French story told by Spanish filmmaker Luis BuñuelA housewife who has anxiety about being intimate with her husband begins working at a brothel in the afternoons, before her husband gets home from work. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is happily married to her husband, a doctor, Pierre (Jean Soreal). She loves him, she is devoted to him, she cares about their relationship, and yet (or maybe because of all that) she finds it impossible to be physically intimate with him. The two don’t even share a bed.

Séverine is haunted with guilt and pressures based on this anxiety that she has. A friend of the couple, Mr. Husson, is always trying to seduce her, to get her away from her husband for a moment of passion. She is beset by strange dreams where men in a carriage punish her in front of Pierre for transgressions unknown to the viewer. And while her husband is understanding and doesn’t intentionally pressure her at any time, his language implies that he’s not the most excited to be in a relationship without a physical aspect.

And then, compelled by strange intrigue, Séverine finds herself at a Brothel. By even stranger circumstances, she finds herself working there. And then, although it seems bizarre to the viewer and to the woman herself, she finds herself enjoying it. Not necessarily the sex, which the movie never revels in (considering its subject matter and the reputation of the country of origin, the film is rather tame in the nudity department). Under the pseudonym Belle de Jour, she works the early afternoon shift at the house of Madam Anais (Geneviève Paige), and finds herself a sought after client. In this work, Séverine is able to find a low pressure form of physical intimacy that doesn’t include the emotional connection, and which allows her to maintain the emotional relationship with her husband without bringing in the physical aspect that she is so uncomfortable with.

Many of the films themes are discussed through dream sequences and strange conversations. These segments highlight Buñuel’s identity as a surrealist filmmaker– things are just barely stranger than they are in real life. But this is no Eraserhead. There is nothing here that should scare mainstream audiences away. It holds up remarkably well, at times seeming like a film from the last 10 years. The technique is not showy here. What is on display is content, this woman and her relationships, her insecurities and her budding new confidence. People are hurt, people make bad decisions, those decisions are worked through in a very human way. The movie is very grounded and a weird enough to keep it from being another movie about a bored housewife.

The star, Deneuve (who is also spectacular in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another of the many films I watched trying to find a French movie to write about here) is spectacular in her role. Séverine is a difficult woman to understand, and is often quite chilly to the people around her, but I never found her unsympathetic or unreasonable. There is a good portion of humor to the film as well, provided by Anais, the other women at the brothel, and the patrons.

One of the selling points of the film, I think, is that the audience is never given cause to pity Séverine. We are not presented a portrait of a housewife who becomes a sex worker because of desperation. We don’t ask ourselves, “How could she have fallen so low?” Instead of a picture of destitution, we are given a genuinely interesting story about a woman grappling with a separation between physical and emotional intimacy and trying to keep the two separate in her life. We are witness to her journey without being put in a position to pass judgement on her. And if we were to pass judgement, it wouldn’t matter much- she is on this journey because she needs to be.