On the rare occasions when I watch them, I always approach musicals with a certain wariness. I can’t pinpoint why they don’t appeal to me, especially when there are quite a few exceptions to the rule: West Side Story, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof. (The Beatles’ movies never feel like musicals to me, though I suppose they are, and I do love A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) All I know is that I’m not likely to seek out a musical unless it’s required film fan viewing (Singin’ in the Rain, for example) or there’s some other attraction, such as an actor or director whose work I’ve enjoyed. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fell into the former category; The Young Girls of Rochefort, consequently, fell into the latter.
Ever since I became interested in the French New Wave, I had heard great things about 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so when I had the opportunity to watch it — on TCM, I should think — I made sure to do so. More a pop opera than a typical musical, as all of the dialogue is sung, it tells the story of a young couple separated by war and various other circumstances. In many ways, it’s unabashedly romantic, but it also acknowledges that an ideal love is at a distinct disadvantage in a less than ideal world, and that, sad though that is, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable tragedy. It’s a beautiful film, not least of all from an aesthetic standpoint (oh, those colors!), and I loved it.
A few months later, I discovered that director Jacques Demy’s next film, 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, was streaming on Netflix, and I decided to check it out. Undoubtedly, the description mentioned that it was a musical, but when it opened with a dance routine, soon followed by a much more elaborately choreographed number, I thought, “Uh-oh. This is going to be one of those musicals.” (And yes, I did say that I like West Side Story. As you can tell, my tastes aren’t particularly consistent, and I was excited to see that one of the main dancers was George Chakiris, West Side Story‘s Bernardo.) Then a badly bewigged Catherine Denevue and Françoise Dorléac made their first appearance, complete with fake trumpet playing, and I began to wonder what in the world I’d gotten myself into. Yet, for whatever reason — sheer curiosity, perhaps — I stuck with it. By the end, I was glad that I had. It may not be another Cherbourg, but it’s a fun film with a charm all its own.
The young girls of the title are twins Delphine and Solange Garnier (real-life sisters Deneuve and Dorléac, respectively), who teach music and dance lessons in the French port town of Rochefort. In order to pursue their careers — Solange is a composer, Delphine wants to join the Opéra Ballet — the two are about to leave the provinces behind and move to Paris. Much to Solange’s excitement, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), the newly arrived owner of a local music store, has promised to pass her name on to American composer Andrew Miller (Gene Kelly), his old conservatory classmate. Delphine, meanwhile, is more concerned with her love life than with her career. In an art gallery, she discovers a picture of herself painted by a man who’s dreamed her up as his feminine ideal, despite never having met or even seen her. Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), who owns the gallery and is in love with Delphine himself, tells her that the artist has gone to Paris. Coincidentally — or not — a deeply romantic sailor named Maxence (Jacques Perrin) is in town. He’s obsessed with finding his ideal woman, and he just happens to be a painter…
During the song in which they introduce themselves, Delphine and Solange declare, “With our feet on the ground, we have flights of fantasy.” The movie itself might be more aptly described as a flight of fantasy that only occasionally comes down to earth. It includes, of all things, a subplot about a grisly murder, yet it’s so out of place and almost pointless that it seems somehow insignificant compared to everything else. Guillaume, a jealous and potentially vengeful ex-lover, is first seen shooting a gun; as it turns out, it’s only for an art project. There’s also some pessimistic talk from an older man, Subtil Dutrouz (Henri Crémieux), about the many problems in the world, which he compares to the international situation in 1939. Although his concerns are justified, they have little to do with Demy’s version of Rochefort, where even the soldiers and sailors stationed there dance down the street at least as often as they march. At one point, Delphine gets caught up in numerous dance routines while walking from her brother’s school to the art gallery, and she accepts it as if it’s an ordinary part of life. In spite of Delphine and Solange’s boredom with their hometown, it comes across as a marvelous place, right down to its colorfully trimmed white buildings and the vivid hues that its inhabitants wear. One wonders if they hear Michel Legrand’s catchy score whenever they step outside.
The Young Girls of Rochefort is a playful film, embracing the absurdities inherent in both lavish musicals and contrived love stories, but there’s also an earnestness to it that’s quite charming. While the visiting carnies (George Chakiris, Grover Dale) who travel from town to town represent a free-spirited, adventurous brand of romanticism, love seems to be controlled by destiny. A man can dream up an ideal woman who not only exists but considers him to be her own ideal. People mutually fall in love at first sight. Even the girls’ mother, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), still ruing a break-up that took place a decade earlier, might get an unexpected second chance at romance. Improbable? Of course, but that’s why this sort of movie is so enjoyable. Now and then, we all need a touch of fantasy. As Delphine and Solange sing:
I know what reason says
But my heart can tell me more
Its reign, its law
Is something no one can resist
And resist I never will
Rochefort may not be Paris, but in Demy’s hands, it’s magical.
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