Film: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
I knew 15 minutes in to this one that I was in for a rough ride. Actually, I knew it sooner. I knew it before the credits had finished running that the two hours or so I spent watching this film were going to cause me no end of pain. I was mildly buoyed by the fact that, as a wonder, I enjoyed Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, but it’s evident that his follow up (by all accounts assisted significantly by his wife Agnes Varda), Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) is a much more traditional musical. Instead of having people sing everything, people break out into song at scripted times, and there’s never a surprise of when the next song is going to come. There is quite literally at least one in every scene.
I’m struggling to find a way to describe this film that sums it up as closely as I can without too many words. The best I’ve come up with is that, aside from the fact that there is a plot to carry us from one end of the film to the other, it’s very much like watching the opening dance sequence from an Austin Powers movie for two hours. Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) walks down the street, and suddenly it’s a choreographed dance number complete with acrobats and people in matching outfits spinning around. I’ll give it that it’s quite a spectacle, but it also really hurts my head.
Let’s see if I can summarize in a single paragraph. We have twins named Delphine and Solange (real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) who respectively teach ballet and write music. They’re bored with Rochefort and want to go to Paris where they are convinced they will both become stars. Solange meets with a man named Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) who promises to introduce her to a successful American songwriter named Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Dame is unaware that Solange is the daughter of his former fiancée, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), who left him because she didn’t want to be known as Madame Dame (essentially, Mrs. Lady). He is also unaware that Solange and Delphine’s younger brother is his son.
Damn. It’s going to take another paragraph. Also thrown into this mess are two carnies named Bill (Grover Dale) and Etienne (George Chakiris) who suddenly need a new dance act for their display at a fair, so Yvonne sends them to her daughters. Also, there’s a young artist named Maxence (Jacques Perrin) who seeks after his feminine ideal, which looks a hell of a lot like Delphine. Oh, and no one sees or bumps into each other, except when they can’t know each other. Andy Miller and Solange run into each other and fall for each other without knowing who the other is. One of the other two couples happens before our eyes, and we’re left with the certainty of the third as the film closes.
All of that is part and parcel of a musical, and while it’s hardly my favorite genre, I can handle it. But there are aspects of this film that simply hurt my brain from start to finish. First, everyone in this film ranks among the most superficial characters it has ever been my displeasure to encounter in any medium. Seriously. The two dancers who leave Etienne and Bill in the lurch do so because they meet a pair of sailors. One of them leaves because Bill’s eyes aren’t blue—if he’d had blue eyes, she’d have stayed with him. Yvonne leaves the father of her son without a word and lies to him about moving to the Pacific coast in Mexico simply because she doesn’t like his last name. For a film that is intended in many ways to be a feel-good, it presents us with terrible characters who (at least for me) cause a wrinkle of the nose and a look of displeasure rather than a sigh and a fluttering heartbeat. Maxence has fallen in love with his feminine ideal without knowing anything about her—he’ll fall for her regardless because of what she looks like. Doesn’t matter what she’s like (he says as much multiple times); if she’s blonde and pretty and looks like his picture, she’s the girl for him. She could be a princess or she could be an axe murderer.
Which brings me to my second problem—there’s an axe murderer on the loose in Rochefort, a plot point that seems to come out of nowhere about an hour into the film. Suddenly, one morning, Yvonne picks up the paper and sings us the news that a woman was brutally hacked apart a few blocks away. And she’s smiling when she does it. And then Maxence walks over to check out the crime scene and calmly mentions to Solange (who happens to be standing there) that he prefers blondes to redheads, but that her being a redhead doesn’t mean he’d hack her apart with an axe. Good Lord, that’s messed up.
I don’t want to give the impression that there is nothing here, though. Certainly the presence of Gene Kelly livens things up tremendously, and while it might be difficult on its face to allow for the romance between the 55-year-old Kelly and the mid-20s Dorleac, it works to a certain extent. Kelly, in his favor, looked a good 10 or 15 years younger than his actual age here. But his dance numbers feel subdued compared with the others in this film, no doubt in part because of his age.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort also succeeds in its overall look. It’s a riot of color and splendor, with couples at the end pairing off in essentially matching outfits, an indication that their love for each other was meant to be. And yet, it’s perhaps a little overboard here as well. Many people throughout the film appear to wear matchy-matchy outfits, including an entire troupe of people wearing grey jackets and pants, white calf-high boots and color-coordinated shirts and ties. It feels so planned, in part because it is so obviously and completely planned. It’s a nice visual effect, but entirely artificial.
It could easily be argued that I’ve completely overthought this film; it’s not a film to be analyzed but a film to simply watch and fall in love with. But so much of it feels so off that I can’t help myself. These people are petty, vain, and self-serving. Why do I want them to get a happy ending? Honestly, I’d have rather seen a musical about the axe murderer.
Why to watch Les Demoiselles de Rochefort: Bright, shiny colors.
Why not to watch: Vast parts of this film truly make no sense.