I'd seen Demy's Lola (1960), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and a couple of others before this, but was only vaguely aware of Young Girls when, while working as an archivist at the USC-Warner Bros. Archives I came across boxes and boxes of publicity material on the film, including hundreds of high-quality color photos and negatives. Warner Bros./Seven Arts released The Young Girls of Rochefort in America, more than a year after its premiere in France, but the picture was anything but a hit. One friend recalls it playing in a single, small theater in Los Angeles for a run of four days.
It wasn't until its re-release by Miramax more than 30 years later, restored under the supervision of Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda, that I finally got to see it. By this point in my life I'd seen thousands upon thousands of movies including, so I thought, pretty much everything with the potential to utterly dazzle as my first-time viewings of movies like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, and 2001: A Space Odyssey had been But dazzle it did. The Young Girls of Rochefort was and remains such an ecstatically joyful viewing experience that, were I stranded on a desert island and allowed to take just one film with me, this would likely be it. Even my daughter's middle name, Delphine, is derived from the character Catherine Deneuve plays in the film, such is my affection for Demy's magical musical.
Though for a long time unavailable in the U.S., in recent years Young Girls has been widely accessible from myriad sources. Criterion's new Blu-ray is mostly identical to the French Blu-ray, sharing many of the same supplements and high-def source. Their release, however, will no doubt help elevate Demy's visibility among American cineastes, and perhaps spur a wider examination of Demy's career. (A marvelous French DVD boxed set includes all his films with English subtitles.)
The movie is often described as a French attempt to recreate the style of MGM musicals, but that's mostly inaccurate. For one thing, Demy's under-acknowledged, crisscrossing screenplay is much more clever than even MGM's best.
In the coastal commune of Rochefort, several truckloads of roustabouts arrive to set up a weekend fair-motor show in the town square. Two carnies, Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), amble over to the adjacent café owned by lonely but resigned Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, who celebrated her 100th birthday a few days ago), the middle-aged mother of twin girls, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac), who teach ballet and music lessons, respectively, to children from their apartment facing the square. Yvonne is also the mother to elementary school-aged Booboo, whose father Yvonne jilted shortly before they were to be married because his name would have given hers sound ridiculous: "Madame Dame." It's a decision she's long regretted, but he now lives in Paris.
Or not. Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) has recently returned to Rochefort to open a music shop where Solange buys blank sheets for her new classical composition. Simon likewise pines away for Yvonne, mistakenly believing that she lives with a lover in Mexico. A gentle soul, Simon offers to introduce Solange to his successful American composer friend, Andy Miller (Gene Kelly), who can mentor her career.
Back at the café, Maxence (Jacques Perrin of Cinema Paradiso) is a handsome young sailor about to be demobbed. He's painted a portrait of his "true feminine ideal," a woman with a coincidental but startling resemblance to Delphine. Delphine admires the painting, which hangs in the art gallery of her pretentious, domineering lover Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), but he tells her the artist has already left town. If that weren't enough, there's an ax murderer loose in Rochefort.
The Young Girls of Rochefort is exquisitely structured, both in Demy's screenplay and lyrics, and in the charming music of career-long collaborator Michel Legrand. Gently farcical, the Gods of Love tease the movie audience matching characters destined to meet, yet Demy's keeps his audience in suspense, in one instance, until seconds before the closing titles. The audience knows how all the pieces fit together (though there are one or two surprises), and part of the enjoyment of Young Girls is watching everything gradually fall into place so neatly.
This is one of the big differences between Young Girls and the MGM (or Fox or RKO) musicals of yore. In those films Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly would fall instantly head-over-heels, like Kelly's light-speed attraction to "Miss Turnstiles," Vera-Ellen, in On the Town, then Gene and Fred would generally badger the target of their affection, often to stalker-like extremes, before they relent and agree they're destined for one another.
Young Girls has a different sensibility. Except for the carefree carnies, each main character dreams of an idealized partner or is remorseful of the one they let slip away. Gene Kelly, to be sure, plays an MGM-type character dropped into the mix, the confident, breezy American who falls in love with Solange much as he did in his Arthur Freed-produced musicals, minus the stalking.
Like the recent La La Land, Young Girls embraces its very artificiality, Demy going so far as to paint large sections of Rochefort in bright pastels (complementing the film's superb costume design), yet the longing by everyone is unequivocally genuine. This is coupled with uniquely French attitudes of sex, love, and marriage as reflected in Demy's other movies, as well as by the contemporaneous New Wave.* As Jonathan Rosenbaum astutely notes in Criterion's slim booklet, "It somehow manages to be both more artificial and more realistic than we expect our musicals to be." He further likens its unique relationship to Hollywood musicals to the way Jacques Tati's Playtime relates to traditional slapstick. The bloodline is there, but it's more of a second cousin, twice removed.
By conventional musical standards, Young Girls isn't perfect. Michel Legrand's music is delightful, and there's much deliberate symmetry to many of the songs that's essential and which pay off emotionally, but some numbers are reprised once too often, and the last half-hour drags a bit with dance numbers by non-professionals not really up to the task. Americans Chakiris, Dale, and of course Kelly make the most of the derivative choreography, while others like Françoise Dorléac struggle to keep up, just as non-dancers like Joan Fontaine did with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress.
And except for Danielle Darrieux, others dub most of the cast's singing voices. This isn't nearly as distracting as, say, Audrey Hepburn's dubbing by Marni Nixon in My Fair Lady but, then again, I'm not French. Regardless, none of this matters one bit, for the entire cast is game, committed, and appealing. Maybe Dorléac couldn't sing or dance but she and real-life sister Deneuve are gorgeous. (Me, I'll take Dorléac's earthiness to Deneauve's icy beauty.) And women and gay men must positively swoon over innocently handsome Jacques Perrin though versatile Michel Piccoli remains Young Girls' sweetest, most charming character.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Franscope, the Gallic equivalent of CinemaScope, and blown up to 70mm for some European engagements, The Young Girls of Rochefort has been restored in 2K from the original camera negative under the supervision of Agnès Varda and now looks and sounds great, with Demy's color scheme and widescreen framing essential to the viewing experience. The remixed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound from the six-track 70mm mix brings out Legrand music, of course, with sound and picture looking nearly identical to the French Blu-ray. A disastrous English-dubbed version was reportedly created but the film is presented here in French only with English subtitles. Region A encoded.
Supplements are nearly identical to French and British DVD and Blu-ray versions. They include a 1966 television interview with Demy and Legrand and another from that same year documenting the making of the film; a 2014 conversation with Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthome and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau; and a trailer.
Best of all is Varda's 1995 documentary The Young Girls Turn 25, which perfectly expresses the film's beloved status in France and reunites the surviving cast in Rochefort, revisiting many of the locations in the process. The documentary is bittersweet, however: Deneuve's sister, Dorléac, had died in a horrific automobile accident a few months after Young Girls had premiered, and prior to its U.S. release. Partly the documentary has the surviving sister coming to terms with the happy film that turned out to be their last significant time together.
A joyous movie-watching experience, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.