Dir. Jacques Demy. Starring Francoise Dorleac, Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Perrin
When you see “Jean Barthet: Chapeaux” in the opening credits, you know that it’s going to be good if they had to put him up top. Nor do his hats disappoint! They are enormous things, like mutant butterflies in marvelous yellow and pink – in fact, Danielle Darrieux wears a hat with a butterfly on it towards the end of the movie – threatening to swallow up Deneuve’s or Dorleac’s heads like nectar. The hats are symbolic of the delightful excess of The Young Girls of Rochefort (which I’m not referring to by its French title because I don’t want to sound super pretentious, but heaven knows that “demoiselles” is so much better than “young girls”). It’s a movie that dances first and sings later, even if the songs themselves are occasionally a little goofy. “Chanson des jumelles” is probably the best-known number, and judging someone by how s/he reacts to it is my new favorite personality test. “We are twin sisters,” they chirp happily, underneath their huge hats, “born under the sign of Gemini!” Any relevance to their zodiac sign short of the doubling down on twinness is lost on me – are Geminis likely to favor headgear the size and shape of a large pizza? – but they seem happy about it. Subsequent verses address topics as diverse as hereditary birthmarks, selling French fries, and how much they like puns. It’s weird under the best of circumstances; when the two of them refer to it as “our song” later on in the movie, and Delphine namedrops Michel Legrand, the movie takes on a whole new type of self-referential strangeness for a few seconds. It’s nothing short of delightful. George Chakiris (in orangest orange!) and Grover Dale (in bluest blue!) look on from their deep chairs and smile broadly as the Dorleace and Deneuve launch themselves into “their song” with the zest of, respectively, a thousand lemons and grapefruits. Leave your irony behind as you watch The Young Girls of Rochefort; it is a musical which is just raucously lavish with its own excitement. Five years later, the MC in Cabaret told audiences with enough sarcasm to boil enough spaetzle for your whole family: “In here, life is beautiful – the girls are beautiful – even the orchestra is beautiful.” There’s no sarcasm in Young Girls, only pleasure.
“Chanson des jumelles” may be the most shameless song of the bunch, which is high praise. Others are more traditionally movie musical. “Nous voyageons de ville en ville” is standard fare for Bill (Dale) and Etienne (Chakiris). The song itself expresses Bill and Etienne’s simple worldview: they like the wind in their hair, the road is their home. They prefer pleasure to pain, pretty girls to ugly ones. The dancing that goes with it is, as is the case for virtually every song in Young Girls, the primary mode of expression. Chakiris’ movements are tighter and smoother; he is effortlessly light on his feet, finding right angles for his kicks without needing to try. Dale’s movements are heavier and bigger; his floppy hair has to be thrown aside more than once over the course of the song. Bill and Etienne are essentially the same person; they dress in complementary colors for virtually the whole movie, but then Etienne has a pink shirt and Bill, that dunce, wears yellow! The differences between them are primarily stylistic; during “Nous voyageons de ville en ville,” the two of them cross the floor of the cafe like ice skaters. Bill keeps his hands behind his back. Etienne raises the forward hand in a fist and then drops it slightly. Even more expected than the Bill and Etienne show is the inevitable scene where our demoiselles‘ dresses serve as the teasingly immodest backdrop for a song at the village fete. Deneuve and Dorleac share a dance in sparkling red dresses that don’t work very well; the lyrics are, understandably, forgettable. When Gene Kelly shows up as Andy Miller, an American composer who’s hit it big and is visiting an old school chum in Rochefort, the unfortunately named Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), Andy finds reasons to dance up and down the streets of Rochefort. Others join him. A pair of sailors, doubtless a callback to Anchors Aweigh or On the Town, dance with him in a rigid tap. “Ciao!” Andy calls out before two young women in miniskirts show up. His demeanor is instantly different, as if his spine had just become more fluid. Kelly, even in his mid-fifties, is as mesmerizing as ever in the few scenes he steals.
My personal favorite, and one that stands out from virtually every other song in the film, is “Maxence’s Song.” Jacques Perrin, whose hair is as unfathomably blonde as Gene Kelly’s polo is pink, acts Maxence very differently from everyone else, and Demy shoots him differently to boot. “Chanson des jumelles” is not shy about giving Deneuve and Dorleac ample opportunities to look directly into the camera (and neither are other songs featuring the Garnier twins). “Nous voyageons de ville en ville” lacks quite as many of those chances given its acrobatics, but there are some moments where Chakiris and Dale make direct eye contact with the camera, and several others where they look in the direction of the camera because they are ostensibly looking at Yvonne behind the counter. Kelly finds it himself every now and then. But Perrin never does. The camera pans gently right-to-left, following him from center and then exposing more of his face. Perrin, for his part, moves his gaze all around the screen, never quite finding someone to focus on. Even when he’s looking at the camera, he’s not looking into it. His eyes are not quite centered on the camera’s eye, and just when we think he might, there’s a cut and we now get the entire cafe.
It’s a logical difference. Delphine and Solange sing about each other; Bill and Etienne sing about what they have done; Maxence, a painter drafted into military service (another gentle heart in the military against his will, like Guy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), has in mind someone he’s never met and who, despite his insistence to the contrary, may not even exist. I’m searching for my feminine ideal, he says. Etienne wryly comments that he’s not alone in searching. The lyrics too are a little different. There’s a focus to them which is missing from “Chanson des jumelles” and a seriousness which never approaches “Nous voyageons de ville en ville.” Halfway through the song he seems like he’ll take it to an uptempo pop style, but then he pulls back as the camera zooms in on him with the same slowness with which it panned before and will pan again.
Maxence’s feminine ideal brings out a poetry in him, and unsurprisingly for a painter a flood of images. Botticelli, Venus, and the Mona Lisa are mentioned; he describes this woman as haunting museums and “adolescents.” His sad smile towards the end of the song as he flips his sailor’s cap into the air and catches it is one of the movie’s most poetic moments, hinting at the sadness which does float around Rochefort.
Dissatisfaction is on the wind for just about everybody. Maxence exudes it. Bill and Etienne, the self-professed lovers whose code includes taking “lie-downs” in the hay, lose their girlfriends to sailors early on and can’t quite get the Garniers into bed with them. Delphine has a boyfriend who is older, haughtier, and more interested in using pistols as an artistic device than she is who she keeps breaking up with but never really getting rid of. Solange loses an original score and the handsome older man she met in the street, not knowing that both are in the possession of the same fellow. There’s a murderer who chops up a retired dancer? (Honestly, no one seems that fazed by it even when they find out who did it.) Yvonne and Simon Dame, we discover, were lovers long ago who separated because of his surname. (Yvonne’s fate has the silliest set of causes, to be certain, but she’s paid for in toil much, much more than anyone else.) It requires a dizzying sequence of circumstances and coincidences to ensure that none of these people come across the other who would, presumably, make their dreams come true. For that reason the last ten minutes or so of the movie are just full to the brim with false starts and near misses. The film’s insistence on dragging out the unseen courtship of its many lovers – not an insignificant skill, incidentally – makes much of one’s enjoyment of the last half-hour dependent on how much one enjoys the songs and dances, which is sort of a pity. The Young Girls of Rochefort so unabashedly catapults itself at its floral attractiveness that it seems a shame to let plot and plot devices get in the way at the end.