Solange : “Sweetie, guys like that don’t hang out in Rochefort.”
Delphine : “Not right now. He’s in Paris. He did my portrait.”
Solange : “Who is it? You never mentioned him.”
Delphine : “A painter. I don’t know him. He exists and he loves me. But I’ve never seen him.”
I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart started beating faster. There’s a surge of excitement from the moment “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967) begins. A caravan of carnies is traveling into the seaside town in southwestern France, and they use a vertical lift bridge to cross the Charente River. As the cars and passengers are being levitated and transported, they step out of their vehicles – dressed in bright pastel colors – under a bright sky and with a jazzy score they start to dance – a movement that is joyful and expansive – recalling a little bit of Bob Fosse as well as Jerome Robbins. As the floor below lifts and crosses the waters, it feels as if we are on a magic carpet. There’s a combination of reality and high stylization at play. Wait – isn’t that George Chakiris who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “West Side Story” (1961)?
Jacques Demy directed this exquisite film following the international success of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) – the musical that cemented Catherine Deneuve’s stardom. The earlier work is a highly emotional tale of love between an umbrella store clerk and a gas station attendant who are separated by the Algerian war with a lush score by Michel Legrand and the most vibrant usage of colors that combined create a feeling of euphoria as you watch it. Demy – this time working with a larger budget and with greater ambition, delivers in “The Young Girls of Rochefort” what I consider to be his masterpiece. He was part of the groundbreaking and innovative French New Wave – and what he does with this film is both celebrate and subvert the classical Hollywood musical while continuing his observation of common individuals and their longings, chance encounters, regrets, missed opportunities, and quotidian routines that give enough hope to dream and yearn for artistic fulfilment and the unifying feeling of love. It’s giddy – bursting with energy, color and exuberance — but there’s a gallic undercurrent of ennui and restlessness that makes this confection original and lasting.
It takes place in the matter of a weekend. A carnival comes into town and as it sets up in the central square of the town, the dolly crane zeroes in on the second floor of the apartment of twin sisters Solange and Delphine – played by real life siblings Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac. Tragically, the latter died soon after the picture’s release – and that fact infuses the proceedings with an added sense of fragility. The scenes between the two of them are joyful. They both want to leave this town – head to Paris – and make it big in the dance and music world. They also both pine for true love which they know is just at their fingertips. The two most intoxicating musical numbers belong to the sisters. They will sing and dance inside their studio with French windows overlooking the plaza – a big mirror – and big hats that make them feel like big flowers. Later they will do a mod homage to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953).
Their mother – Yvonne -runs the glassed-in café that looks like an aquarium in the middle of the plaza – daily life and natural light reflecting in. She stupidly walked away from the love of her life – and unbeknown to her he’s moved back into town looking for her. Solange bumps into an American musician – Andy Miller – who could impact her career as a composer but most importantly she knows he might be the love of her life. He’s played by a still athletically sexy Gene Kelly who burst into dancing sampling “On The Town” and “An American in Paris.” A local painter, poet and soldier has been dreaming and sketching her “Feminine Ideal” and the exhibit of his work looks exactly like Delphine.
Demy had parts of the city painted in bright primary colors. The musical numbers are staged on the streets of Rochefort – playing up the symmetry and geometry of the city planning. The convergence of four-way intersections in town emphasize fate and coincidence. Repeatedly there will be near misses that will stop our hearts. Demy’s denouement finds a way to have both a happy ending and the ambivalence of a modern musical.
If you’ve never seen this film, you owe it to yourself. Michel Legrand’s songs are transcendent.
Yvonne Garnier : “I’m afraid I can never get out. I’m confined to this aquarium. Me, who was meant to live in the open air on the Pacific shore, listening to sweet music and reading poetry.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, iTunes,
Written and Directed by Jacques Demy
Starring Catherine Deneuve, George Chakiris, Françoise Dorléac, Michel Piccoli, Jacques Perrin, Grover Dale, Geneviève Thénier, Gene Kelly and Danielle Darrieux
The Making of “The Young Girls of Rochefort”
In 1964, French writer-director Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a pastel-colored, 100%-sung musical starring Catherine Deneuve, became an international success, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and scoring five Oscar nominations. It did so well that Demy and his composer, Michel Legrand, soon began to develop another musical, not a sequel but a companion piece — actually the third of a loose romantic trilogy that had started with “Lola” (1960). The new film, “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967), was made in something of the spirit of “Umbrellas,” albeit with more traditional numbers interspersed with straight dialogue scenes…Chakiris later recalled being offered the film not with a script, but with Demy and Legrand playing the entire score for him. Chakiris’s manager recommended not taking the role because it wasn’t prominent enough, but, Chakiris later told the Los Angeles Times, “I liked the sound of it myself, so I chose to go ahead and do it. I just think it’s a film that holds up… It has such charm.” With Gene Kelly’s involvement, Demy and producer Mag Bodard were able to secure backing from Warner Brothers, and filming got underway in the summer of 1966, on location in Rochefort. The budget was bigger than on “Umbrellas,” allowing Demy to use crane shots and other expensive techniques. He even arranged for thousands of shutters in Rochefort to be painted in bright pastel colors, an example of his exacting vision of the overall color scheme. Demy’s collaboration with Legrand was a close one. Legrand later said: “I remember arriving at [Demy’s] house in the mornings to work together. He would stand by the piano with a blank notepad, and I would have a blank music sheet in front of me over the keyboard. I would say to myself, for the moment, nothing exists. But after about an hour, or maybe a day or a week, all these sheets will be filled, and we will have created something new. On occasions, all that was necessary was quick riff on the piano to set the creative process in motion.”
One of their numbers, “Song of a Summer Day,” featuring Deneuve and Dorleac, was designed as a clear tribute to the “Two Little Girls From Little Rock” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Dorleac had found success as a film actress even before her more famous sister, and she was on the cusp of breaking out into international stardom when she died in a tragic car accident in 1967, at the age of 25. She had completed work on one more film after The Young Girls of Rochefort: Billion Dollar Brain (1967), opposite Michael Caine. Deneuve went on to a magnificent career and remains one of France’s most esteemed and beautiful film actresses. In 1998, looking back on this picture, she told The New York Times, “It’s less difficult to watch this film than others with my sister. It was the only film I did with her, but it was a musical. The scenes are so charming and related to what we were as sisters in real life.” In another interview, with writer Britt Kelly, Deneuve added: “We were very close, and shooting that film brought us even closer, back to a place and way we had been when we were much younger. Life can give you some terrible knocks, and there’s not a happy ending every time. But I do believe in them. I am very optimistic. I am still very romantic about life.” “The Young Girls of Rochefort” was a commercial hit in France but not in the United States, where a dubbed English-language version was released…Thirty years later, Demy’s widow, filmmaker Agnes Varda, spearheaded the restoration of both “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” whose original Eastmancolor film stock had faded badly. Varda had been on set of The Young Girls of Rochefort and even shot behind-the-scenes 16mm footage, which she incorporated into her 1993 documentary “The Young Girls Turn 25.” Freshly restored, “The Young Girls of Rochefort” was re-released in 1998. (tcm.com)
About Choreographer Norman Maen
Born Norman Maternaghan in Ballmena, Northern Ireland, in 1932, Maen originally trained as a teacher at Ballymena Academy and Stranmillis College, Belfast. Shortly after he began teaching, Maen, who had been dancing since his youth, left his homeland to pursue a stage career in Vancouver, Canada. There, teaching by day and honing his dancing skills at night, he went on to work with the Alan Lund Dancers on a weekly series starring Robert Goulet He eventually moved to Toronto, where he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of its television dance team. Eight years later, Maen moved to New York, where he trained and danced with Broadway choreographer Jack Cole. He then returned to Ireland, where he spent three years as station choreographer for public television station RTE. From there, he moved on to London, where he established his own dance troupe. He also found work on the television series “This Is Tom Jones,” which allowed him to work with such stars as Liza Minnelli and Juliet Prowse, and for which he won a Primetime Emmy in 1970 for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography. Over the ensuing years he drew acclaim for a 1976 episode of “The Muppet Show” for which he conceived a sequence titled “Swine Lake,” featuring Miss Piggy dancing with ballet legend Rudolph Nureyev. Other stars with whom he collaborated included Gene Kelly, Ethel Merman, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Julie Andrews. He also directed and choreographed the Royal Variety Performance on several occasions, and created a routine based on Debussy’s “L’Après-Midi d’une Faune” for Olympic champion skater, John Curry. He is survived by his partner of nearly 47 years, Israeli director and choreographer Domy Reiter Soffer. (emmys.com)
About Composer Michel Legrand
Born in 1932, Michel Legrand came from a family with a musical tradition represented by his father, Raymond Legrand and his uncle Jacques Hélian. When he was ten, he entered the Paris Conservatory, which proved to be an unexpected revelation. “Until then, my childhood had been flat and unhappy,“ he relates. “ My life revolved around an old piano and I was very bored. I was very lonely. Suddenly, when I joined Lucette Descaves’ music theory class, I discovered a world that belonged to me, people who spoke my language. From then on, I felt that life had something exciting and motivating to offer” After studying under the iron rule of Nadia Boulanger, Henri Challan and Noël Gallon for several years, Legrand left the Conservatory with top honors in harmony, piano, fugue and counterpoint. He immediately gravitated to the world of song, working as an accompanist musical director to Maurice Chevalier. He traveled with the famous French singer on his international tours. This gave him the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time. His instrumental LP, “I Love Paris,” did extremely well in that country, topping the US album charts in 1954. His first hit record also had great symbolic significance, revealing his international potential: the talented 22 year old did not look back and continued to go from strength to strength in France and abroad. In the 1950s, Michel Legrand also started composing for some of the artists he was accompanying. His first great song “La Valse des Lilas,” displayed an individual style of melodic writing which soon became his hallmark…In 1955, Michel Legrand turned his hand to another mode of expression when he wrote the film score “Les Amants du Tage” by Henri Verneuil. Four years later, with the advent of the French New Wave, he became one of the architects of the revival of French cinema. He began collaborating with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, François Reichenbach and, of course, Jacques Demy, his creative alter ego, with whom he invented a new genre of film musical. As well as being awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the Prix Louis Delluc, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” achieved massive world-wide success – despite the pessimistic predictions of many industry professionals…The parting lovers’ theme song, “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi,” initially covered by Nana Mouskouri, became a popular standard, largely owing to the English adaptation by Norman Gimbel (“I Will Wait for You”) as well as versions by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong and Liza Minelli. Legrand continued to set Jacques Demy’s imaginative lyrics to music (“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” “Peau d’âne,” “Trois places pour le 26”), although he moved to Los Angeles in 1968 for what he called “a change of scene”.
After the success of the “Thomas Crown Affair” and his song “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Legrand decided to divide his time between Paris and Hollywood, working on anything that appealed to him: “Un été 42,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Jamais plus Jamais, Yentl,” “Prêt-à-porter.” Regarding film music as another form of dialogue, Michel Legrand is the only European composer with a filmography that includes names like Orson Welles, Marcel Carné, Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Richard Lester, Claude Lelouch, to name just a few. Nonetheless, his prestigious awards in the field of screen music (three Oscars) have had no impact on his creativity…In 1964, Michel Legrand decided to perform his songs himself, adding yet another string to his bow. His voice became an additional instrument that he could put to unaccustomed use…Michel Legrand worked on his voice and focused in particular on building up a repertoire with two writers of his choice: Eddy Marnay (“Les Moulins de mon coeur,” “Quand on s’aime,” “Les enfants qui pleurent”) and Jean Dréjac (“Comme elle est longue à mourir majeunesse,” “Oum le Dauphin,” “L’été ’42”). He subsequently had the chance to put music to lyrics by Jean-Loup Dubadie, Boris Bergman, Françoise Sagan and Jean Guidoni and, in 1981, he himself wrote the words for his album “Attendre”… which he also performed and composed. In America, Michel Legrand’s loyalty to Alan and Marilyn Bergman has given rise to scores of great numbers, usually theme songs (“The Summer Knows,” “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel”). 2014 saw Michel Legrand still performing 60 concerts across the globe. His new ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier from the Hamburg Ballet opened to phenomenal success in Costa Mesa, California, as a prelude to a US tour. Michel’s new concerto for harp was premiered in Philadelphia in February 2014 and his new opera, ‘Dreyfus’, opened at Opéra de Nice in May 2014. To coincide with the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, Michel Legrand conducted the oratorio version of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’ at Théâtre Châtelet…The CD “Natalie Dessay Sings Michel Legrand” which was released in October 2013 has been certified gold, with sales of 50,000 in France and was followed by a spectacular world tour for three years.
Shortly after this international tour, the Hamburg Ballet Liliom by John Neumeier commissioned Michel Legrand to write a ballet based on the beautiful story of Liliom. The ballet was choreographed by John Neumeier and was performed for the first time in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, USA. In March 2014, Michel Legrand wrote a beautiful score for the new Xavier Beauvois movie ‘Love Is A Perfect Crime’. The movie was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014 and was nomination at two other film festivals. Throughout 2014 he performed concerts in France, Ireland, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, USA, Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium for more than 50 concerts!…The performance had seen such a huge success that more dates were added for 2015; An already busy year with concerts all around the world including a tour in South America with Soprano Natalie Dessay and the recording of new album ‘Michel and friends’ which came out in November later that year. In January 2016, Michel Legrand gave a stunning performance with a Big Band and friends tenor Vincent Niclo, Soprano Natalie Dessay, and Maurane at Le Palais des Congrès, Paris during the concert ‘Michel Legrand invite Vincent Niclo’. Later in May 2016 Michel Legrand was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to receive an honorary Doctorate from Western Michigan University as part of his first visit to the Irving S.Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. While in Kalamazoo, Mr. Legrand performed a commissioned World Premiere, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Summer 2016 has been filled with Festivals in Argentina, and France and the year will continue to be extremely busy with concerts around Europe. ‘Michel Legrand invite Vincent Niclo’ has been touring until October 2016. The year of 2017 was rich with Michel Legrand’s 85th Birthday tour around the world and two precious album releases. (michellegrandofficial.com)
About Writer and Director Jacques Demy
Born in Pontchâteau, on France’s Atlantic coast, in 1931, Jacques Demy enjoyed a playful childhood in Nantes, where he directed animated and live-action shorts and studied fine arts. After training with the famed animator Paul Grimault, he assisted the documentarian Georges Rouquier, with whom he produced his first documentary short, “Le Sabotier du Val de Loire,” in 1955. His first feature, “Lola” (1961), captivated Jean-Luc Godard in Cahiers du cinéma and ushered him into the fringes of the New Wave. He followed with a charming chapter, “La Luxure” (“Lust”), for “Les Sept péchés capitaux” (“The Seven Deadly Sins,” 1961), adding to segments by Godard, Roger Vadim, and Claude Chabrol, and his second feature, “La Baie des Anges” (“Bay of Angels,” 1962), a gambling melodrama starring Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann. In 1962, Demy married the filmmaker Agnès Varda, which solidified his affiliations with a group of directors known as the “Left Bank”. The Left Bank—Varda, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Alain Robbe-Grillet—identified themselves this way for their Paris neighborhood as well as for their leftist persuasion. The group distinguished themselves through political content from the aesthetically focused New Wave. Since “Lola,” Demy had been cultivating a project for an experimental musical, “a film entirely sung”… “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” 1964) continued the path of the Lola protagonist Roland Cassard, but in a completely new form, all of its dialogue set to composer Michel Legrand’s music. “Les Parapluies,” with its color, spectacle, and melodrama, featured an unknown Catherine Deneuve and opened to wide critical acclaim. Demy took this musical experiment further with “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (“The Young Girls of Rochefort,” 1967), another Legrand musical, starring Deneuve, her sister Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, and Gene Kelly, who also choreographed the film’s dance sequences. While “Les Parapluies” had ventured into new territory as a quotidian opera, Rochefort alternated music and spoken dialogue, in the tradition of American musical comedy. Critics in France and abroad criticised Demy for replacing substance with spectacle.
In 1967, Demy landed a contract with Columbia Pictures, and he and Varda left for Hollywood. There, he filmed “Model Shop” (1969), completing the Lola story by following his earliest heroine to Los Angeles. Perhaps clouded by his new Hollywood sensibility, Demy struggled upon his return to France. He maintained some of his earlier magic with the fairy tale “Peau d’âne” (“Donkey Skin,” 1970), another Deneuve vehicle and an homage to Jean Cocteau. Yet his “British Pied Piper” (1971), met little success, and his first feature comedy, “L’Événément le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la lune” (“A Slightly Pregnant Man,” 1973), bombed at the box office, despite the presence of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. Demy responded by again retreating from French cinema, this time for nine years. During this period, Demy restricted himself to the “Japanese Lady Oscar” (1978), filmed in English, while a proposal to film in the Soviet Union fell through. In 1980, Demy directed one French telefilm of a Colette novel, “La Naissance du jour,” but his slump continued, and he and Varda parted ways. When Varda returned, only the following year, Demy had plunged back into French cinema for “Une Chambre en ville” (“A Room in Town,” 1982). This film revived the spirit of “Les Parapluies,” as an opera-melodrama set against a labor strike, set to a score by Michel Colombier. “Une Chambre en ville” failed financially but received nearly unanimous critical acclaim and led to a lifetime achievement award, the Grand Prix des Arts et Lettres, later that year…Next, Demy played tribute to Cocteau’s “Orphée in Parking” (1985), he rejoined Grimault for the animated and live-action mix “La Table tournante” (1988), and he completed a final musical, Trois places pour le 26 (“Three Places for the 26th,” 1988), with Yves Montand. Demy contributed interviews for Varda’s “Jacquot de Nantes” (“Jacquot,” 1991), a biographical feature on his boyhood dreams and film projects, but he died of leukemia in October, 1990, shortly before the film’s release. (sensesofcinema.com)