Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) is one of the most beautiful and richly acclaimed musical films of all time; but when Demy, working now with a much bigger budget, followed up with The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967), critics balked and the public stayed away. Demy died in 1990, and his widow, the great filmmaker Agnès Varda, began work on the restoration of her late husband’s films, including these two musicals made soon after their wedding in 1962. (The refreshed Girls appeared in 1996.) One of the fruits of her labor in the late 1990s was a total reversal of critical consensus on the film’s merits. The Young Girls of Rochefort, once dismissed as trivial and decorative, is now widely regarded as a masterpiece. I won’t go that far, and I certainly don’t think it matches the extraordinary achievement of its predecessor, but Young Girls is a glowing, at times miraculous film.
Two sisters, twins, Delphine and Solange Garnier, occupy the center of the plot. They share an apartment in Rochefort. (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also provincially set; Demy himself was born in PontChâteau.) There, they run a ballet school for children; Solange plays the piano, while Delphine instructs the pupils. The two also sing together as an act, and Solange is additionally a composer. They have a much younger brother, Boubou, a schoolboy who lives with their mother, Yvonne, and whose father, different than theirs, had offered the never-wed mother a marriage proposal that she spurned. His name is Simon Dame, and Yvonne, masking commitment issues, insisted she didn’t want to be called Madame Dame; but now she regrets her decision. Alas, Yvonne and her “ideal man,” who has never stopped loving her, came to be separated and fell out of touch with one another. Unbeknownst to her, Simon has now moved back to town and has opened a music shop. Will they meet again and become a couple?
On the street one day, Solange literally runs into an American stranger, Andy Miller, who is Simon’s friend. Her papers, including the concerto she has been working on, go flying, and so does Andy’s heart. Having at last come across his “ideal woman,” Andy is in love. Solange is in a hurry to get elsewhere and departs, leaving behind, on the ground, part of her concerto, which Andy, a musician himself, retrieves, hoping for a reunion. Will he and Solange meet again and become a couple?
One of the frequent patrons at the café Yvonne owns and operates at the center of town is Maxence, a young sailor who, having spotted Delphine in the regions of his imagination, instantly fell in love and painted her portrait without ever having met her. Maxence became a sailor, in fact, to search the world for the girl who matches this ideal of his. Yvonne listens sympathetically to his raptures about his “ideal woman,” unawares that the girl for whom the boy is searching is her own daughter. The painting hangs in the local gallery that Delphine’s persistent suitor, Guillaume Lancien, owns; recognizing his own heart’s desire in it, Guillaume contrives to keep the potential lovers apart. Delphine, of course, has seen the canvas and wants to know the boy who so loves her. Will Maxence and Delphine meet and become a couple? Or will Delphine and Solange keep missing Maxence and Andy and hook up instead with the two carnies, Etienne and Bill, who have just rolled into town in their truck for the annual big show? “Perhaps they really do love us,” at one point Solange says to her sister, and they are both planning to hitch a ride with the itinerant boys, who are headed, along with the entire caravan, for Paris.
The Young Girls of Rochefort spins as a web of missed opportunities for romance and for love. It is comical and poignant, and potentially deadly. Subtil Dutrouz, who has difficulty cutting a cake at Yvonne’s dinner party, has unbeknownst to everyone taken an ax and killed the woman who has denied his loving overtures for forty years. “That’s no reason for carving up a person,” Yvonne muses when the identity of the killer is revealed. And well she might hope so, given how she turned away Simon once upon a time.
This is a terrific story, Shakespearean in its romantic complications and dovetailing just-missed opportunities, and Demy concocts one of the most aching scenes imaginable as Delphine and Maxence just miss seeing one another twice, in a matter of seconds, at Yvonne’s café. Both boy and girl are separately headed for Paris, where, Guillaume tells Delphine, they are bound to run into one another on some boulevard. This is unlikely. If they cannot meet in Rochefort, where they have points in common between them, how will they meet in the much larger Paris, where they have no points in common? Love almost seems impossible in the world that Demy portrays.
It isn’t, though. Love prevails, but not in all cases. The final movement of the film—the caravan rolling out of town and off to Paris while Rochefort citizens stroll across the town square—is exquisitely timed and detailed; the final shot, shattering. The couple we most hope for may never be. This is Demy, I believe, imagining the dire consequences had he and Agnès Varda never met. Indeed, Varda’s walk-on in the film, as a nun, underscores the vicissitudes of life that might have conspired to keep their love from coming to fruition. The film is bewitching romance, but with a tragic undertow. With their rootless existence, the carnival workers lend the film notes of wistfulness and unpredictability that tease the undertow to the surface.
I cannot believe that this film was ever dismissed as mere entertainment; although it glitters and shines, it’s profound. I am embarrassed to admit that I, also, once shortchanged it, as indeed (as a sixteen-year-old) I shortchanged The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In honoring Demy’s memory, Varda has also been merciful, giving me and others a second chance to consider the two films and revise the foolishness of our youth.
The Young Girls of Rochefort isn’t completely sung, as Umbrellas is, but the music by Michel Legrand and the lyrics by Demy are plentiful and wonderful. Some have complained about the repetitious nature of the score, but they miss the point of the echoes. Let me quote from one of most sensitive commentaries on the film, by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader: “The film’s chance encounters and missed connections are expressed . . . in the score and in Demy’s delicately crafted lyrics. Maxence’s song about his search is reprised as Delphine’s song about her own longings; Simon’s account of his lost love becomes, with appropriate alterations in the lyrics, Yvonne’s own regrets about having abandoned him; Solange’s piano concerto takes on lyrics after Andy intercepts the score. Many other reprises are less obvious than these. The song that goes with policing the crowd, for instance, reprises and adds lyrics to a secondary theme from the opening dance number in the city square. Both sequences emphasize community over individual destiny: here, as elsewhere in the film, Legrand and Demy enrich the meaning of other scenes by playing with the emotional and thematic effects of rhyme.” “From Legrand’s improvised piano solos and big-band arrangements to stretches of scat singing and Demy’s allusions to Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton,” Rosenbaum further remarks, “this movie swings.” Rosenbaum’s intimacy with the film is perhaps born of the fact that, unlike many of the rest of us, he has loved the movie all along.
Unlike Umbrellas, Young Girls is a dance musical as well as a song musical and, as with the songs, characters are apt to burst into dance on a dime. Some viewers are put off by this, but it’s part of the piece. The dancing in this film—its sudden, giddy spurts—underscores the perils of finding love and romance. The erratic nature of the steps, in addition to the erratic occurrence of the steps, expresses this danger. Thus we may say that the film is a dance musical not in the sense that the dancing in it is magnificent—Norman Maen’s choreography, faux-Jerome Robbins out of West Side Story, is disjointed and undeveloped—but in the sense that it’s expressive of what the film is about. (It would be as pointless to watch this dancing outside of the context of the film as it would be to listen to all the game attempts at singing in Woody Allen’s marvelous 1996 Everyone Says I Love You outside the context that the film provides.) By way of compensation, Gene Kelly, who plays Andy, choreographed his own dances, and these have old-fashioned charm.
The acting in this film is to die for, even from unexpected quarters. I consider Catherine Deneuve, although a great beauty, to be an untalented actress, but as Delphine she sparkles; until her care-worn acting in another musical, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), this would remain the performance of her career. Kelly, too, is not among my favorites; I normally find him smarmy in the extreme. This is easily his most winning performance, although his difficulties with French required the dubbing of his songs by Donald Burke. (The singing of all the male actors, I believe, is dubbed by others.) Other cast members didn’t have as much to prove to me. As Solange, Deneuve’s older sister, Françoise Dorléac, is a knockout—and utterly real. (Later that same year she died in an automobile accident. Dorléac was 25 years old.) George Chakiris moves me almost to tears throughout his performance as Etienne, who asks so little of life, taking whatever comes. This is the wistful, slightly weary part that Chakiris was born to play. (In his mid-thirties, incidentally, Chakiris looks closer to twenty—the age he was in 1954’s White Christmas. He was only 12, though, in his film debut, in the 1947 Song of Love.) Michel Piccolo’s lightness conceals a motherload of pain as Simon, and Danielle Darrieux, who nearly twenty years later would again play a Deneuve character’s mother in André Téchiné’s Scene of the Crime (1986), is as natural as Yvonne as she had been sublime as Max Ophüls’s tragic Madame de . . . (1953). (She, too, began as a child star in films.) But the best performance of all may be Jacques Perrin’s intricate and finely etched Maxence, the Everyboy we root for with all our heart. The subtle way in which Perrin counterbalances Maxence’s idealistic passion, his sheer hopefulness, with a judicious sense that his romantic quest may be doomed to failure accounts for the film’s deepest chords of sensible humanity. In his gifted hands, Maxence is the epitome of optimistic youth holding on by a thread.
At the last, he and Demy take our breath away.
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