Director: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac
The musical is a complicated genre; with every moment of song, every beat and moment must be precise and executed to perfection. This is what French director Jacques Demy managed to achieve in his forays into the genre, particularly with both this and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Young Girls of Rochefort is the coming together of a multitude of the arts—music, dance, singing, painting, carnivals, and pure lyrical poetry. Demy was at the height of his craft making musicals in the 1960s, writing both dialogue and lyrics as well as bathing his films in vibrant and eccentric color, and managing long and complex takes to capture as much story within a single shot. The end result for Rochefort is a cocktail of ambitions, romance, and even a little black comedy.
Real-life sisters Catherine Denuve and Francoise Dorleac play sisters Delphine and Solange Garnier, who teach ballet and music, respectively. But through all these artistic struggles in Rochefort, they yearn for the romance and opportunity of Paris, and decide to leave as soon as possible. In their last weekend in their hometown, a myriad of events, both in love and career, happen to the sisters, as well as to their mother Yvonne, played by Darlene Darrieux. A soldier (Jacques Perrin) creates a painting to Delphine’s likeness, and the two fall in love without even seeing each other. Solange almost runs into her ideal partner, played by Gene Kelly (most known for Singin’ in the Rain), multiple times, and Yvonne longs for a lost romance with a former fiancé, who unbeknownst to her, is in the music store down the street, and is played by Michel Piccoli. All the while the girls become involved with two carnies who employ them.
Unlike the case of many musicals, the music itself, composed by Michel Legrand, never feels forced or inorganic to the story’s flow. In the colorful cinematography and the dreamlike set design, its easy to believe that this is a world where people spend a good amount of their daily life having such melodic conversations and rhythmic movements to accompany them. The story itself can be a bit overtly complex, and some characters are likely unnecessary if someone were to deconstruct the script entirely, but its not nearly enough to dissuade viewers. The primary characters (the sisters, the mothers, the love interests, the carnies) all give away so much of themselves through the songs they sing and in the interactions they have with one another around Rochefort that when thinking about the film after a viewing, the baggage characters and throwaway moments simply melt away. Some of the character arcs wrap up in an all-too-perfect way that might make some viewers roll their eyes, but some, particularly those who are more in love with the musical genre, will prefer these happy-go-lucky endings.
The case of Francoise Dorleac is one of cinema’s many “what-ifs” alongside James Dean’s acting and the directorial career of Charles Laughton. In this film, she showed the potential to have the great career in song, dance, and screen time that her twin sister had, had she not died in a tragic accident at 25. There’s a lot to wonder from situations like these, in what could’ve been.
This film, as well as Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was a huge inspiration for the recent American film La La Land, a film which recreates the vivid cityscapes and wistful love stories that Demy presented. While this film lacks the intrigue of loss and tragic elements of Umbrellas, and lacks its loveable and unconventional way of narrating a story solely through the music, The Young Girls of Rochefort is still essential viewing for lovers of musicals and French cinema.