The Young Girls Of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort)
France (1967) Dir. Jacques Demy
When people fall in love they feel the need to shout it from the rooftops for everyone to hear, and maybe even break out into a spontaneous dance routine to express the joy they are current experiencing. Only in the movies of course, because this tale of giddy romance is a musical!
A group of carnies arrive in the port town of Rochefort to put on a show for the weekend, among which are Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale). They immediately ingratiate themselves with Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), owner of the diner in the centre of the town square. She has twin daughters, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac), both musical with ambitions of making it in Paris.
Dancer Delphine ends her relationship with gallery owner Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles) when she spies a portrait in his gallery resembling her and vows to find the painter. Meanwhile, composer Solange gets an offer from music store owner Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) to introduce an American friend Andy Miller (Gene Kelly) who might be able to help her career. Later that day she meets a charming foreigner and falls in love.
Following the success of his Hollywood influenced musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques decides to go all out with his next film and pay homage to the works of Gene Kelly, making it as authentic as possible. It’s fair to say The Young Girls Of Rochefort does indeed mimic the style of Kelly’s films very closely, albeit with a palpable European flavour to it beyond the French language.
Remarkably, despite having Kelly on board, he wasn’t responsible for the choreography – that credit goes to Norman Maen – yet the routines are very Kelly-like in construct and movement, suggesting either Maen was an observant replicator of Kelly’s style or the man himself contributed but didn’t take credit for it. Kelly has two major routines in the film, effortlessly outshining those around him, as to be expected but not necessarily a critique of the other skilled dancers.
Kelly’s role as Andy is one of many pivotal to the plot but he is not as heavily featured as others. The film was shot simultaneously with French and English dialogue and like his fellow Americans Chakiris and Dale, and indeed the whole cast except for Darrieux, Kelly’s singing voice is dubbed, as well as some of his dialogue. This would explain why so much of the story is conveyed through song for the foreigners, limiting their spoken lines to a few here and there.
Even though the story is rather straightforward to facilitate the many musical numbers, scored by Michel Legrand to Demy’s lyrics, it is layered in terms of the multiple budding love stories in this small community. In true cinematic fashion, love arrives on first sight for many of our cast, but not always mutually, while others keep missing it by being unfortunate enough to turn the other way at the wrong time, or not opening their eyes at all.
One catalyst for these fateful meetings is Yvonne’s son Booboo (Patrick Jeantet), his main role being to be picked up from school. Étienne and Bill are asked by Yvonne to do the honours (despite being complete strangers) unaware that Delphine is also on her way to the school. The lads immediately fall for the haughty blonde, not knowing who she is, which isn’t reciprocated, but Delphine does let her brother go home with them, as she has to be elsewhere. Shocking!
Has she taken Booboo back to the diner, she would have met Maxence (Jacques Perrin) a sailor about to be demobbed searching for his ideal love, just like the subject of a painting he did of his dream blonde girl. Yes, THAT painting. The coincidences don’t stop there – Yvonne was once engaged to Simon but ended it because she didn’t want to be Madame Dame, but now she is older she regrets the decision. If only she paid a visit to the new music shop that just opened in town…
Thrown in an underdeveloped thread about a sadist in town wanted by the police and you have a remarkably packed storyline. Unlike the films Demy is paying homage to, the songs aren’t loosely related ditties to reiterate the theme of the scene or feelings of the characters, they are there to provide exposition and often further the story. This means the lyrics are very verbose and busy, as if they scan awkwardly due to being sung in French, but they are 60s pop catchy yet reflective of the Hollywood blueprint.
Demy achieves two interesting things with the aesthetic – the vivid colour overload and vibrancy of Umbrellas that stays within the period, suffused with a palpable retro feel to the staging that recalls the films being honoured here. In other words, despite the period fashions, the dance routines could be relocated to any 50’s musical such is the close approximation of the replication of these numbers.
What has become a notable landmark for this film is the fact this is the only time real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac appeared on screen together. However, this is only historically significant as three months after its French release, Dorléac was killed in a car accident aged just 25. We may never know if she would rival her younger sibling’s career but based on the evidence here, it was very possible, her charisma and presence every bit as alluring as La Deneuve.
Gene Kelly’s Oscar winning An American In Paris inspired this film and 2016s La La Land, except American was shot on the MGM back lot, so even though The Young Girls Of Rochefort didn’t take place in Paris, he at least this time actually gets to dance in France! Demy’s homage to the classic Hollywood musical is sincere, earnest, and a breezy affair, a bit long at 127 minutes, but does its job and pleases where it needs to.