French director Jacques Demy is best remembered for his bittersweet musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a film that earned him much acclaim and made a star out of Catherine Deneuve. Following the success of his 1964 film, he made The Young Girls of Rochefort three years later, a much sweeter musical than its predecessor and an even more sumptuous feast for the eyes.
The film is about twin sisters Delphine and Solange (played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac), who teach music and dance to children in Rochefort. As they long for life in the big city, an opportunity to leave for Paris arises when a traveling carnival comes through town for the weekend. Other characters we encounter along the way are carnival workers Étienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), the twins’ single mother and café owner Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), sailor and artist Maxence (Jacques Perrin), music store owner Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), and American musician Andy Miller (Gene Kelly).
Love is a constant theme throughout Jacques Demy’s films, displaying both its transient bliss and especially its woeful disappointments. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, fate wasn’t kind to the protagonists’ desire to be together, and in his other films, chance and coincidence often hinder his characters’ from attaining the happiness they yearn for. But in The Young Girls of Rochefort, everything is much more upbeat, and it’s Demy’s most effervescent film. Like his previous film, it’s a musical about missed connections and lost love, but the outcome for the characters is much more optimistic.
Though most of Jacques Demy’s French New Wave contemporaries were drawing inspiration from film noir and neo-realism for their films, he went in the opposite direction and took inspiration from a lighthearted genre. With The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy captured the spirit of the Hollywood musical while placing it in a very French context and keeping his characters more grounded to reality. Instead of pausing the plot for musical numbers, Demy infused singing and dancing seamlessly into the real world. Sometimes characters will start singing instead of speaking in the middle of a conversation, and background characters can be seen dancing in the street even if it’s not an official musical number (you can watch the trailer here to get an idea of how it plays out).
While the film itself is a sort of homage to Hollywood musicals, it also has some particularly strong ties to a few of its best. The two actors playing the carnival workers who befriend the twins garnered their claim to fame from stage productions of West Side Story. George Chakiris famously played Bernardo in the 1961 film, winning an Oscar for his role. But before that, he played Riff in the London production, while Grover Dale played one of the Jets in the original Broadway show. Then there’s Gene Kelly, arguably Hollywood’s greatest musical star. His appearance here calls back to his film An American in Paris, as he plays an American musician living in Paris who falls in love with Solange on his visit to Rochefort. The film also evokes another of his musical films, On the Town, as Maxence is a sailor searching for his feminine ideal, who happens to look just like Delphine. And though Rochefort wasn’t Demy’s original choice of setting for the film, the title is reminiscent of the “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with the sisters donning similarly sparkling red gowns for their carnival performance. This also circles back to Chakiris, who had an uncredited role as a dancer in that film for the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number.
The Young Girls of Rochefort is essentially a perfect confection of my favorite types of movies: it’s a musical, it’s French, and it’s about sisters! I’m always drawn to movies about sisters as I have two myself, and the fact that the title characters are played by real-life sisters makes it even better. As far as foreign films go, I’ve definitely seen the most from France as I’m a bit of a Francophile. And I can always count on musicals to cheer me up; it’s the one genre that serves as a perfect escape from reality because its conventions are so unlike real life. Demy’s film truly fulfills that role for me, with a world so vibrant that it seems virtually impossible not to feel euphoric while watching it. Living in the film for a couple of hours is truly an uplifting experience, and it’s bound to put anyone in a happier mood.
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