The best thing about The Young Girls of Rochefort is what goes on in the background.
Set and filmed in the French town of the title, this Jacques Demy-directed musical mostly takes place on the streets or in the central square, where just about everyone you see is dancing. I don’t mean partaking in structured musical numbers that focus on the main characters. I mean spinning and twirling and bounding about of their own accord in the corners of the frame, even if the focus of the scene is on two people talking in the foreground.
As with his masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy is nodding to the classic Hollywood musical here (Gene Kelly gets a delightful supporting part) while also offering a take on romance that’s decidedly French. Love isn’t an achievable goal – something we earn – but rather an elusive thing. Like those people in the background, it’s always in motion.
Imagine a stage farce in which characters looking for each other keep entering the wrong room at just the wrong time.
This is true for just about all of the story’s main characters. The first ones we meet are Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), traveling salesmen who produce elaborate stage shows at weekend festivals in hopes of selling motorcycles and boats. When two singers in their company ditch them, they set their eyes on sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Francoise Dorleac), local music instructors who dream of Paris. (Deneuve and Dorleac were sisters in real life.) Solange, however, is infatuated with a mysterious American she’s bumped into (Kelly), while Delphine daydreams of an ideal man, not realizing that this very man (Jacques Perrin), a poet and sailor, has painted her portrait without ever having met her. Did I mention that the sisters’ mother (Danielle Darrieux, of The Earrings of Madame de…) pines for a former lover who has returned to Rochefort without her knowledge?
Imagine, then, a stage farce in which characters looking for each other keep entering the wrong room at just the wrong time. The Young Girls of Rochefort gives this a romantic twist, yet it essentially follows the same structure, culminating in a series of near misses that verge on the comic.
Because of this – and because of an ensemble cast that never allows the movie to find its center – The Young Girls of Rochefort feels like more of an exercise than something as emotionally authentic as Umbrellas. The unevenness of the “dedicated” dance numbers also add to the variety-show feel. Kelly’s tap routine is a highlight, but a lengthy number of Deneuve and Dorleac on stage at the festival comes off as strangely static.
The true pleasures of The Young Girls of Rochefort are its smaller touches: the pastel doorways; Kelly’s sudden adieu from his convertible; Solange and Delphine’s momentous hats. In fact, if there’s a defining moment in the movie, it’s something of a throwaway. Walking down the street, Deneuve’s Delphine notices that most of the passersby are dancing. She joins in, and soon enough a flurry of joyous, communal motion is underway, with Delphine being held and passed along by strangers down the street. This is a movie that – at any moment – has the potential to lift you off your feet.