In appreciation of The Young Girls of Rochefort
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Deneuve and Gene Kelly serve up a celluloid anti-depressant in this musical classic...
Let’s ponder for a moment the concept of pure, undiluted, unadulterated happiness. Those of us who have had the distinct pleasure of this feeling, be it for a few moments or over months at a time, know that it is untouchable; it feels, for all the world, like the most profound, meaningful experience of your life to date. It feels everlasting and perfect. It would seem we would actively seek to renew this feeling again and again, and yet, in our film viewing, how often we drift to the dark, the conflicted, or most clichéd of all, the “gritty.” We equate difficulty and strife with realism and realism with quality so fervently that we lose sight of the fact that quality filmmaking has nothing to do with what feeling it evokes, only that it evokes a feeling.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is the happiest film I have ever seen. It’s the best 1960s pop song you’ve ever heard stretched out over two hours. It’s a film thoroughly infused with joy and unembarrassed about displaying it – totally free of cynicism or doubt, it is the cinematic equivalent to walking amongst the clouds.
Writer/director Jacques Demy is a unique figure in the French New Wave, as he wasn’t interested in the bold affronts to structure, genre, or politics that Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard engaged in, nor did he feel drawn to the new types of stories and structure that Francois Truffaut or Agnes Varda (Demy’s wife) were engaging in. Instead, Demy invested fully in the Hollywood musical, breathing new life into it and adding daring touches of his own. In his most acclaimed film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken.
Rochefort doesn’t have as bold a conceit, and mostly follows the typical musical structure – that is, characters break into song to underscore and reveal the film’s emotional keystones. Unlike a great many musicals, it is infused with The Musical. Characters will break out into dance or hum a bit of a song outside of the context of “song time,” and the score is a frequent presence that fills the time in between proper songs, making the transition all the more natural. In one staggering shot, star Catherine Deneuve is walking along the street and dances with each pedestrian she encounters along the way. In others, we’ll see extras dancing in the background, or as a lead-in to a song.
The camerawork by Ghislain Cloquet is smooth as silk, and he and production designer Bernard Evein do everything they can to blast the pastel colors, creating a sort of warm, Eastery look. Demy’s cutting, alongside Jean Hamon, is a delicate balance between Fred Astaire’s edict that all dance should be one shot, showing the whole body, and Rob Marshall’s musical-as-action-film aesthetic. They cut to rhythm and beat. Norman Maen, the choreographer, gives all the dances an air of grace, with very few hard, sharp movements – when one seems to be arriving, it touches down ever so slightly. The dancers’ executions are all masterful (it does help when one of your stars is Gene Kelly, an impressive and entirely apt bit of casting). The sum total of these decisions is a film that seems to just float, a film that is truly musical.
"The Young Girls of Rochefort gives rise to Kubrick’s declaration that film has closer ties to music than literature or theatre. It’s the too-rare film that is completely honest"
It’s Demy’s decision to take flight with happiness that is the film’s boldest move, however. Happiness has always been a rather unfashionable emotion; lightweight comedies and upbeat pop songs rarely carry any cultural cache in the time they’re produced, and even now I get sideways glances when I mention that The Beach Boys are my favorite band or that The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded. We tend to equate joy and happy endings with clichés and cookie-cutter product, but truthfully those guilty works are the product of cynicism and greed. They give us upbeat resolution for the box office returns. Creating an honestly happy ending, or truly expressing the feeling of complete ecstasy is damn near impossible, never mind incredibly brave in a society that has long favored irony and cynicism over an honestly-expressed emotion.
The Young Girls of Rochefort gives rise to Kubrick’s declaration that film has closer ties to music than literature or theatre. It’s the too-rare film that is completely honest. It feels as though Demy accomplished exactly what he set out to do, ran all the way with it, and makes no apologies or concessions for it. I can’t think of any higher praise.
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