Reviews and notes
Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort
is undoubtedly too much. Here is romantic intrigue served up with a knowing lack of shame, a musical boasting star power of the highest magnitude that satirizes the conventions of the movie musical with affection and wicked glee.
Here are also Michel Legrand's finest songs, Catherine Deneuve's most extroverted performance and Gene Kelly's sweetest one. Demy and Legrand set out to celebrate the Hollywood musical, but they ended up outclassing the original. To have this happiest of all products of the French New Wave, originally released in 1967, restored uncut to its original wide-screen splendor must count as a major event. If ever there was a perfect film musical, this has to be it.
The action is fast, the plot intricate. Deneuve and her real-life sister Francoise Dorleac play twin sisters in a sunny seaside town who long for life and love in the big city.
The formidable Danielle Darrieux plays the unapologetically single mom who raised the pair and now runs a little cafe in Rochefort's main square. There, the large passing cast includes Jacques Perrin as a young sailor pining for the perfect woman, Michel Piccoli as an older musician looking for a long-lost lover and Kelly as his American friend. Add George Chakiris and Grover Dale as a pair of dancing truck drivers with a traveling carnival, and the stage is set for a weekend none of them will ever forget.
It is easy to love Demy's Young Girls
on its own terms. But it grows more lovable in the light of the Hollywood musicals the director celebrates. The prologue begins in stillness, with a crane shot of carnival workers on a ferry about to dock in Rochefort. Suddenly, inevitably, they break into dance. It is much like the beginning of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story
- and the association is easy to make, given that Demy's lead dancer is Chakiris, who'd won an Oscar for West Side Story
five years earlier. The same goes for Demy's affectionate references to On the Town
, An American in Paris
and Singin' in the Rain
, with Kelly recalling the spirit of his own early hits and proving that his powerful screen presence was undiminished in the Indian summer of his career.
The popular Twins' Song
, which has achieved cult status in France - and has earned the undying devotion of Parisian drag queens - has Deneuve and Dorleac in their first scene together recalling another pair of movie sisters: Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer in Meet Me in St. Louis
- down to the girls wearing identical outfits in contrasting primary colors. Later comes a surprise, as the sisters sing Legrand's Chantez l'amour!/ dansez la joie
! By the time Demy's twin bombshells reach their flamboyant, glittery carnival number, their channeling of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
becomes a classic in itself.
And so with the whole picture. The exuberant choreography by Norman Maen (an onscreen credit but also an insider's tribute to A Star Is Born
and its anti-hero, named Norman Maine) not only fills every available inch of the extremely wide screen but also, for all its clever quotations, comes up with movement that carries its own dreamlike logic.
The subject of Demy's original script may be soaked in familiar MGM and Fox musical lore, but the actual lyrics, which Demy also wrote, consist mostly of very French alexandrines. These rhymed hexameters make for fine syncopation when set to music by Legrand.
Demy died in 1990, and his finest picture now has been lovingly restored by Agnes Varda, his widow, who has a brief cameo in Young Girls
as a music-loving nun. Young Girls
stands alone from Demy's other films as a gift of optimism, tenderness and hope. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful films of all time.
- Octavio Roca, San Francisco Chronicle, 18 September 1998.
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