Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
DP: Ghislain Cloquet
Editor: Jean Hamon
Producer: Gilbert de Goldschmidt
Score: Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Gene Kelly, Jacques Perrin, Danielle Darieux, Michel Picolli, George Chakiris, Grover Dale, Jacques Riberolles, Henri Crémieux
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 2 hrs.

The Young Girls of Rochefort features an artist who paints a portrait of his imagined ideal woman, and it just so happens to look exactly like one of the other characters. Magic exists in this film's world ,and love does not function the way it does in real life; rather, it functions like a force of nature which forms ineffable links between soul mates. It's a musical after all - emotions are bared and communication is composed and choreographed. True lovers don't need to meet until the end because even if they don't know each other, we know them, and because they're spellbound.

Because of this, the film does not offer detailed, thoughtful depictions of romantic relationships, but that's all right; it celebrates art more than love, using its notion of love only as an ecstatic payoff to artistic labors. Almost every character is an artist, and in their pursuit of artistic achievement, they intend to leave Rochefort and head to Paris. Most of the characters' actions in the film are to this end, and not to further their love lives; even when they know their ideal partners exist, few of them actively pursue romance. Ultimately, what ends up uniting them is their collective motion toward Paris - even the non-artist characters who remain in Rochefort are brought together by what happens between the artist characters.

Art acts as something that brings people together, forming bridges between characters and location; it's also characterized as a source of constant movement, while interpersonal conflicts and other cruel machinations of fate are characterized as obstructions. (The song "Nous voyageons de ville en ville" reflects this most straightforwardly.) So, for the characters who follow through with their art, everything works out easily. Often when the characters sing or speak, they directly address the audience, looking right into the camera. This and the actors' overall manner suggests a kind of showing off, the conscious sharing of information; the characters may not pursue romance directly, but through their art they project themselves out into the world, which ultimately brings everything to a resolution beyond any individual's control or understanding.

Of course, this ease of resolution doesn't preclude the film from having ideological thrust. The Young Girls of Rochefort was made in 1967, when certain groups in France (most notably Charles de Gaulle and certain supporters of his) held nationalistic sentiments about the purity of French culture, and an aversion for American culture, which they viewed as contaminated by consumerism, and lesser in spiritual value. The film's cheery openness actually allows it to take a position against that. It has points of intersection with American culture - namely, elements of jazz in Michel Legrand's score and a tap dance routine by Gene Kelly, who speaks a rough combination of French and English in some scenes. Sometimes it resembles "Franglais," a mix of languages that some Gaullists believed was a sign of American cultural colonialism. The Young Girls of Rochefort seems completely unperturbed by it.

The town itself is realized in a variety of pastel colors against white surfaces. The colors glow in the bright light, but their soft shades prevent them from being overly stimulating. There are only two dark spots on this bright palette: the military presence in Rochefort, and an axe murderer who shows up late in the film. Notably, both of these are also portrayed as being out of step with the artists' constant movement.

The Young Girls of Rochefort might seem slight compared to the bittersweet realism of Demy's 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it's no less carefully built. And it might be a little more political than the simplicity of its ideas and the ease of its characters lets on.

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