The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy | 2hr 5min

In the small French city of Rochefort, seven hours outside Paris, musicians, painters, dancers, and carnies idle around, longing after whimsical dreams they believe will manifest elsewhere. That anyone would want to leave this pastel-coloured paradise seems absurd – where else could one bump into Gene Kelly walking down a pristine street, or have their likeness randomly painted by a mysterious, dreamy stranger? It is telling that the departure of Delphine, a beautiful young dance teacher, also becomes a deadline for her to finally find the man she has been seeking this whole time, and the question of whether the two entwined paths will meet becomes a source of enchanting suspense. Little do these men and women realise how close their romantic ideals are, even as they remain just barely out of sight.

The central predicaments which plague this ensemble of characters seem to be the inverse of those which haunt Lola, the first in Jacques Demy’s Romantic Trilogy, where the ghosts of old lovers trap men and women in wistful, nostalgic memories. The Young Girls of Rochefort possesses some yearning for the past, but it is predominantly towards the bright, hopeful future that our characters direct their attention, as they hang onto pieces of art and music that evoke their creator’s essence. Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg certainly both revel in the exuberance of expressive musical numbers, and yet there is no bittersweet edge present here. Instead, there is a wonderfully formal use of dramatic irony in the multitude of coincidences that keep bringing these sweethearts close enough to touch, only to let them finally collide in marvellously grandiose expressions of love.

The all-white music shop makes for a wonderful set piece several times, but especially in this swooning romantic finale between Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve.

The Young Girls of Rochefort opens with what might as well be a musical warm-up for both performers and director alike, as a caravan of carnival trucks arrive in town atop a cable ferry. This slow crossing of the river provides the perfect chance for the travellers to jump out and stretch in synchronicity to the overture, though the actual landing heralds the first major dance number of the film, and an introduction to Rochefort itself – a city where orange trucks, pink fire hydrants, and blue window shutters burst forth in bright urban landscapes, and where vibrantly dressed strangers accompany each other in leaps and twirls down sidewalks with joyous exuberance. Few other filmmakers have proven as thorough an understanding of colour theory as Demy, whose compositions move beyond photographic and into the realm of truly kinetic cinema through the interweaving of choreography and rich production design.

Demy is a perfectionist when it comes to compositions of colour and movement in stunningly choreographed musical numbers.

On top of that, Demy’s camera floats airily through this space, as we witness early on when it lifts up from the town square into the window of a dance and music studio, where our two main characters are finishing up a class. Delphine and Solange Garnier are a pair of twins “born in the sign of Gemini”,an auspicious omen that grounds their very existences in coincidences and good fortune. After observing the fair being set up outside, the two suddenly turn and snap to the camera, and with that sudden shift they launch into the opening musical number as a manner of introduction. The days of songs emerging organically from narratives are gone – like so many other auteurs of the French New Wave, Demy is reinvigorating his chosen genre by acknowledging its artifice, letting his actors directly address the camera as if to invite us into their vivid lives.

Symmetrical framing of the twins who can only be distinguished by their clothing and hair colours.
Simply gorgeous attention to detail in the colours of this city and its inhabitants.

Despite this blatant disregard for movie-musical convention, The Young Girls of Rochefort could not be a more jubilant expression of Demy’s love of the genre. These stylish, vivacious films certainly carry the potential to wrestle with deeper psychological quandaries, and there is even a nod to this sort of darkness here in a jarring subplot regarding a violent murder, but even such tragedies cannot exist without simply being brushed aside as the result of romantic passion gone astray. Heartbreaks only ever belong in the past for these men and women, and second chances are handed out to those who wait with patience. In theory, this hearty belief in the inevitability of destiny takes a good deal of power out of the hands of these characters. But as Demy envisions them onscreen, the lovers who inhabit this small, French town are simply caught up in some remarkable force of romance greater than themselves, inspiring in its artistic expressions of dance, music, and outrageously beautiful colours.

So perfectly curated, everything from the ties to the window shutters.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now.

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