Life’s regrets aren’t often the basis of a movie musical, yet French director Jacques Demy is best known for his two films that fit that exact description.
Life’s regrets aren’t often the basis of a movie musical, yet French director Jacques Demy is best known for his two films that fit that exact description. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is his bittersweet 1964 masterpiece, a movie about the triumph of realistic love over romantic infatuation. Cherbourg, featuring dialogue that is entirely sung, launched Catherine Deneuve to international stardom and snagged Demy the Palme D’Or. Working once again with Deneuve and composer Michel Legrand, Demy followed up Cherbourg with The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968), a film that hews closer to the style of Hollywood movie musical yet still retains the distinct je ne sais quoi of classic French cinema.
Featuring a who’s who of ‘60s French stars, Rochefort is a bigger, less intimate affair than Cherbourg. Françoise Dorleac joins real-life younger sister Deneuve as a pair of twins disaffected with life in the small titular town. Both sisters, who teach dance and music respectively, ache for true love and escape from Rochefort. Meanwhile, their mother, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), runs a coffee shop and longs her old lover Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), who, unbeknownst to her, works in a nearby music shop. Even Gene Kelly shows up as an American musician passing through town. The action begins when a traveling fair comes to Rochefort and with it, the possibility of true love.
According to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Young Girls of Rochefort “somehow manages to be both more artificial and more realistic than we expect our musicals to be.” What he means is that Demy takes what is commonplace in Hollywood musicals and stretches these tropes to their outermost limit. The characters wear bright pastel colors and break into song for no reason. A walk down the streets of Rochefort reveals people dancing in shameless abandon. Rochefort becomes a wonderland, a place where music is always in the air and the town itself is a stage for the young and vivacious. Even in one scene, where no one is singing, the characters speak in Alexandrines.
Yet, like Cherbourg, a wistful, melancholy underpinning flavors Rochefort. Demy focuses on the quotidian: characters at work, characters going about their daily lives. There aren’t big moments of dramatic tension like one would expect in a musical such as The Sound of Music. Most of all, Demy’s characters are profoundly dissatisfied with their lives, longing to be with an ideal someone who may or may not be out there. Like Cherbourg, these are characters who spend most of their time licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves. Unlike Cherbourg, Demy allows most of his characters to find their way towards a happy ending after spending the entire film dealing with missed connections.
Missed connections is the most frustrating aspect of The Young Girls of Rochefort. The script isn’t necessarily complex and within its first 30 minutes one can see which characters are set up to fall in love with one another. Sprinkle in a completely unnecessary murder subplot and Rochefort begins to wear thin before its 126 minutes fully run out. With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy steals our hearts. However, by trying to give our hearts back again in The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy reduces the film to little more than a light, entertaining musical that does not resonate the same way its predecessor does.