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An attempt to follow-up on his acclaimed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort is an impressively mounted production that almost captures the effortless charm of the American dancing musicals it emulates. The sentiment is in the right place, but whether or not the magic comes will depend on the particular viewer. Easy to like but too lengthy to sustain its energy, this colorful and bright show is perfect for diehard musical fans and lovers of director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand. In this collaboration they employ jazz rhythms in a Musical that's concerned more with Demy's theories of romance, than Hollywood conventions.
The Young Girls of Rochefort is considered the third of a quartet of Jacques Demy romances. It combines the musical-chairs game of chance encounters of Lola with the musical foundation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It's not connected by plot with those first two shows 1 although some of the same situations are mirrored - a single woman stuck behind the counter of a shop ... an American in a white convertible, returned to find an old friend.
Umbrellas is an operatic bittersweet romance, whereas Rochefort is breezy and light, like an MGM Freed musical. It confects a situation where everyone is searching for their true fated love, who is of course just a chance meeting away. All subsist on their romantic dreams. There are individuals who haven't learned to give to others, such as the possessive Guillaume, who is the only character who submits to jealous feelings. Most of the older characters have to live with bad decisions in their past - such as Yvonne, who told Simon she was pregnant with his child but left with another man to live in Mexico - all because she didn't like his name!
The script manages a nice orchestration of romances, from the star-crossed to the almost casual. Waitress Josette (Geneviève Thenier) stays on the romantic sidelines until the very end, when she suddenly joins the caravan to Paris. Some do find their true and special loves, but it is left ambiguous whether or not one prominent pair gets together. In contrast to the mix'n match sweetness, a bizarre tangent plot about an axe-murderer (!) is weirdly treated as no big deal, yet has two songs associated with it.
This dazzling bonbon of a picture has found a lot of fans over the years. It's certainly different, and means well, but it's an experiment that'll be tough going for many. Every scene has at least one song, and even more combine singing with dancing - lots of dancing. The leads dance. The twenty or so squeaky-clean dancers do large-scale numbers in every open space in town. The leading characters dance on the street, in hallways, just about everywhere.
The problem is that the hoofing is practically non-stop, and the show is 125 minutes long. Second, Michel Legrand's light and jazzy score doesn't sustain - most of it sounds too much alike to those of us who aren't going to pick up on allusions to the styles of Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Third, similar clever lyrics (the subs are also cleverly rhymed in English) are given to every singing character, so we always feel we're hearing the author's thoughts and not the those of the individuals. Fourth, the dances are also rather homogenized - George Chakiris and co. do a great job, but there's nothing particularly memorable about any of their routines. Most reviews laud Gene Kelly's presence in the film, but his dances come off as low-stress retreads from An American in Paris. In his big number with Francoise Dorléac, she follows him not much better than Gilda Radner did Steve Martin in the Dancin' in the Dark spoof from an old Saturday Night Live.
Finally, only one actor's singing voice is undubbed (Dannielle Darrieux) . Although all are excellently synchronized, prominent voices heard in Umbrellas of Cherbourg are easily recognized coming from new mouths. Demy, without the technicians or expertise of Hollywood, is playing fun games with the musical format, and people who judge his film by Hollywood standards are going to find fault.
If the joy and creativity of Demy's free-form style appeals, The Young Girls of Rochefort may be just for you. Dorléac and Deneuve (sisters in real life) are to die for in the beauty department, and are models of poise and grace ... even if they vamp their way through most of the dancing. They're only awkward when they're made to do some ungainly dance steps in their shimmering crimson dresses during the big show - a duet modeled after Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe's big number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 2
George Chakiris is obviously the best dancer and a gracious presence, if not particularly romantic or memorable. Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli are excellent as lovers of the older generation. Their reunion is the most affecting of the bunch; and Piccoli's the most loveable character of all.
Rochefort is seen mostly in broad, bright daylight, which doesn't lend much variety to the visuals. Yvonne's all-glass cafe on the plaza makes a stunning center for the action, however. The town is so clean, that sights like the procession of trucks carrying large toylike boats resemble scenes from the later films of Jacques Tati. The scope lensing is excellent, as is Ghislain Cloquet's camera, which floats and cranes about with just the right lightness. Of special note are the costumes, which to Savant's eyes still look fresh and attractive. Only the dated white go-go boots of the show people betray the slightest hint of 1967.
All the criticisms above seem ungrateful when the movie's positive ambitions are taken into account. Musicals are just about the toughest genre to pull off (just watch Woody Allen's leaden, groaning attempts in the last few years) and judging The Young Girls of Rochefort by what it isn't is perhaps a very wrong approach. Neither should viewers expect an experience like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but if you love musicals, you might find this unique French tuner a delight from one end to the other. Savant thought the romantic windup (with an Umbrellas - like iris out, of course, to be particularly endearing.
Miramax's DVD of The Young Girls of Rochefort can't be faulted. Some reviews criticized the early Fox-Lorber disc of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as poorly framed and even time-compressed, but this disc looks accurate and uncompromised. The softer French color palate is well-represented. The slight warping at the edges of the image in some shots appears to be part of the original photography. The Dolby Digital audio is mono. There are no real extras; the trailers on board are recent promos prepped for video release. On Savant's player, no English subtitles came up until I hit the appropriate remote button, so if you want a clean start, set them beforehand.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. (This is about the relationship of Demy's earlier Lola to
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and may contain spoilers.) Many more people have seen
Umbrellas than Lola, which
is a crying shame, as the non-musical Lola is one of the more beautiful romances ever made. In
a b&w & 'scope Nantes, young drifter Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) is hopelessly in love with the
young woman of the title (Anouk Aimee), and spends the whole show hoping
to capture her heart. Unfortunately for him, she's obsessed with an American who's promised one day
to return in his big white car. If she could, she'd fall in love with Roland, but love's not like
that. The film is full of romantic echoes, almost like The Searchers: one over-protected
young girl sneaks out with a sailor, and it's not long before we hear an older woman talk about her first love with a
sailor long ago that turned out badly. In Demy's world, love is a fathomless game of chance and
circumstance that repeats through the generations. Roland is thwarted and disillusioned at the conclusion
of Lola, but returns in Umbrellas of Cherbourg to steal young Catherine Deneuve for his
own, away from her soldier lover Nino Castelnuovo. There's an echoing scene where Roland (now in color,
older and more jaded) talks of Lola, and we see a fast tracking shot around an empty terraced square
that was a central location in the first film. The backstory of Lola, gives Umbrellas new
depths of bittersweet sadness, and prevents us from placing 'blame' at the feet of Roland.
2. The American premiere of the film was dampened when reviews reported
the untimely death of Francoise Dorléac in a car accident in Nice. Radiant and fresh, she
graced pictures like Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac and Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain.
3. An informative response from reader Jeff Wilson: Glenn: I was glad to see someone review
The Young Girls of Rochefort, as its
decidedly sub-cult status in the USA will keep many from hearing of it, let
alone seeing it. I thought I would add a couple points not mentioned in your
review; first, Miramax essentially buried this film upon buying the US
rights to it, even refusing to spend advertising dollars on it in the few
cities where it got even the whiff of release. Also, the bare-bones DVD
ignores the Agnes Varda-directed documentary The Girls at 25, which she made
to celebrate the film's anniversary. This documentary is included on the
French edition of the DVD, and is a must for fans of the film, as it
includes interviews with cast members, rehearsal footage, and more. Too bad
Miramax couldn't be bothered to try and include it. Finally, there were two
versions of Rochefort: the French version, which is the obvious choice,
and an English language variation that has apparently been unseen since it
was made. It's unclear as to whatever happened to this version, but one
track from it appears on the double compact disc soundtrack release in
France. Thanks again for an always interesting column! - Jeff Wilson