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The Young Girls of Rochefort: Nearly Utopia

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By Christopher Sharrett.

I somehow conflate in my mind’s eye images of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) with images of my experiences of the late Sixties. This seems odd, since these masterworks by Jacques Demy, although fully-accomplished films, have no real resemblance to the Sixties I experienced, which were rendered in psychedelic paisley, usually very messy – and sometimes bloody (although I firmly reject the notions that the Altamont concert and the Manson killings signaled the “end of Aquarius.”) I think the answer here is that Demy’s films are an affirmation of humanity also containing a note of melancholy and doubt, a small skepticism even when the moment turns nearly ecstatic.

The ambiguity of Demy’s films haunts me, along with his deep love of life. Umbrellas, an opera with all dialogue sung, is a story about the loss of “true love,” as its bright color palette turns dingy, taking us back to the “reality” (Demy’s films emphasize artifice) of the industrial world. But the mood shifts long before the ending, when Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve, who was launched into stardom with the film) waves goodbye to Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) as he departs on a train (evoking Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948, the director much admired by Demy) to the military and Algeria, a war always in the film’s background. Young Girls is preoccupied with the search for the “ideal,” a notion it doesn’t trivialize while suggesting the delusions within this obsession.

For me, it is something of a coin toss as to which of these films is the most important. At the moment, I’d say Young Girls, for its unfettered joy that nevertheless hints at tragedy around the corner and its festiveness saturated with anxiety, due in great part to the score by Michel Legrand, Demy’s collaborator and one of the great musical presences of the last century. More needs to be said about Legrand’s jazz-based score, with loud brass driving its themes, receding on occasion to let a solo piano quiet the mood. Legrand, suffice it to say, is one of the great composers of the last century, who worked in New York jazz clubs and side-by-side with some of the important European filmmakers, with Demy his best-remembered colleague.

Roch 02I have heard various specious criticisms of The Young Girls of Rochefort, beginning with a critique of the “girls” themselves, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Francoise Dorleac, Deneuve’s real-life sister – her death not long after the film’s completion is one of the tragedies of the 60s and is oddly forecast in this magnificent film), who, according to those without eyes to see, are bubble-brained, spoiled caricatures of the “career woman.” Their first duet (“A Pair of Twins”) reveals Delphine and Solange (who teach dance and music respectively) as self-aware, capricious, and fun- (and sex-) loving, Demy always giving his story some reflexivity. Solange playfully picks up a trumpet, that most phallic instrument for the jazz inclined, and plays their song, a variation on the main theme. Young Girls, although filmed in a real (but repainted) town, seems to be in another dimension, where unusual spontaneity lives alongside very real pain. I would say that if Umbrellas offers a paradise lost, Young Girls shows a potential utopia, but one with threats always on the verge of their actualization. The threat comes from the thing most pursued – a love that will endure.

In his liner notes to the disc, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that Pauline Kael remarked after seeing Young Girls that the film “demonstrates how even a gifted Frenchman who adores American musicals misunderstands their conventions.” Rosenbaum dispenses with this nonsense well enough, so I’ll just note that there are about four instances of Kael’s bizarre thinking in that statement, yet she remains the tastemaker for so many American audiences. Demy knows all musicals quite well, thank you, casting here – partly as homage – Gene Kelly, the cinema’s most muscular dancer, and George Chakiris, after Fred Astaire perhaps the most lithe. Demy’s musicals are suis generis, so paying heed to conventions is an idea of no utility, certainly not for its creator. One can go on about the cast – The Girls’ mother is café owner Yvonne, played by Danielle Darrieux, who would be immortal if she had only one role, that of “Madame de…” in Max Ophuls’ eponymous film. That she has a young son who could have been mothered by his sisters speaks to the film’s assumption that the female must be a sexual free spirit.

Roch 03But the freedom is ensnared by the miseries of erotic love. Delphine visits her boyfriend Guillaume (Jacques Riberalles), a gallery owner who spends his time making “action paintings” by firing a pistol at paint-filled balloons; such is the fate of modernity at male hands. She ends the affair with the brutish lout, but pines about her unknown true love, a dream also shared by the sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who has actually painted Delphine’s image without knowing her. He sits in Yvonne’s glass café, which she regards as her “aquarium,” as she wastes her life in this prison, a pleasant one to be sure, but one instance of Demy asking us to truly inspect the image, and to see that the joy expressed in song is double-edged. Maxence’s melancholy song, sung with a smile, is one of several expressions of a love that won’t happen (even when it seems to) – the search for this ethereal love reminds us of the narcissism, the self-absorption underlying the endless daydream.

The darkness doesn’t fall in Young Girls as it does in Umbrellas, but Demy still makes us aware of the danger in our midst. The kindly Monsieur Dutrouz (Henri Cremieux), an older man and regular at the café, brings Yvonne’s little son a toy “atomic submarine.” It turns out he is the axe murderer pursued by the cops – but never seen as a real threat to the singing and dancing of Rochefort. The serial killer theme, almost always associated in fiction with the destruction of the female, is set oddly aside here, even as people gather outside the killer’s house after another grisly murder. Thanatos is coolly accepted as part of the rules of the sexual game. Delphine and Solange blithely brush away the threat of violence to romance, assuming it’s the price one pays for adventure. Demy points, without real accusation, to personal and public stupidity, and an underlying fact of gender politics as he pursues, without a shred of camp, the fun and games of looking for Mr./Ms. Right. Demy observes the insanity without mockery, like Yvonne’s dreaming about her ex-partner (who lives around the corner). Without trying, this film is almost a diagnosis of an essential, eternal issue.

Roch 04There are various forms of death threatening eros; we note that Rochefort is a garrison town, with companies of marching soldiers and sailors competing with pedestrians in the pastel-painted streets. Algeria isn’t a topic of Young Girls, but colonialism is, as soldiers march past civilians for the moment.

The “fair” that arrives in Rochefort is really an open-air sales exhibition for speedboats and motorcycles, their brand names very prominent. Demy adds politics casually; the whole affair is great fun, even if capitalism looms over all. The sales troupe arrives in the seaport town on a barge. As the main theme slowly begins, the young people start languidly to come to life, then irrupt into dance. The closing-down of the finale suggests that the film opens and closes like a flower, a small and fragile affirmation of life that is gorgeous in its short moment. The dancing in the film is synchronized but never lockstep. The film is never Riefenstahl or a celebration for Mao. Dancing is loose, as each dancer shows awareness of what others are doing, imitating while never losing personal uniqueness. The dancing in Demy has never been equaled.

Unlike many Hollywood musicals (and I mean no offense), the action doesn’t stop dead to allow music to happen. On the contrary, dancers casually explode into life, expressing their momentary pleasure through their art, then coolly sliding back into the rest of the mise-en-scene. The spirit of the film never changes; we hear music even when none is on the soundtrack. Some people walk down the streets as other people dance past them, then the walkers start to dance, with even the occasional military personnel joining in. One could see the proceedings as one long display of “casual sex,” or promiscuity, as Robin Wood defined it, namely a way of relating freely.

Criterion has restored both Young Girls and Umbrellas in beautiful Blu-ray editions, allowing Demy’s extraordinary color palette – and his full craftsmanship – finally to be appreciated. These new editions are actually extracted from Criterion’s 2014 set The Essential Jacques Demy. Selling Umbrellas and Young Girls separately seems reasonable, yet Criterion might have done so earlier, since the people who love only his two key musicals tended to buy the whole set (no harm there – it is important to see his Lola, 1961, the film preceding Umbrellas, and the delightfully perverse Donkey Skin, 1970). We need to mention a very important name as we celebrate these restorations: Agnes Varda, Demy’s widow, whose name appears everywhere, it seems, in the French New Wave, specifically its Left Bank variant. She was involved in so much, from the superb anthology film Far from Vietnam (1967) to Brando’s great testament Last Tango in Paris (1972), not to mention her own estimable films, especially Le Bonheur (1965). I can’t say that her late husband’s films would have never appeared on disc without Varda’s assistance, but I can say that her supervision of their restoration has been estimable. Varda has been called the “grandmother” of the New Wave. I would replace that word with spiritual mother, a guide, muse, caretaker, and artist, in other words a figure we need to regale and respect as long as art exists.

Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He is writing a book on the TV series Breaking Bad.

3 Comments for The Young Girls of Rochefort: Nearly Utopia”

  1. A really sincere and sophisticated review of a film I prefer to UMBRELLAS transcending the usual smart-alec comments of unaware reviewers. Jacques Perrin also appeared in three Pierre Schoendoerffer films THE 317th PLATOON (1965), LE CRABE-TAMBOUR (1977), and HONOR OF A CAPTAIN (1982) that attempt in their own way to interrogate issues of French colonial military involvement in Indo-China and Algeria in certain ways without engaging in the nostalgia of INDO-CHINE (1992) where Deneuve embodies a matriarchal colonial Marianne image.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Merci mon ami.

  3. This is a splendid review of a charming film that I routinely revisit. It was quite magical seeing it on the big screen last year in 35mm at the National Film Theatre in London (while I was in town to do some research at the BFI). Outside of some scratches in the opening sequence, the rest of the print was quite lovely.

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