Friday, January 1, 2010

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

AKA Les demoiselles de Rochefort
Directed by Jaques Demy
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Gene Kelly
Rated G

"You're very beautiful."
"So I've been told."

Francoise Dorleac was Catherine Deneuve's older sister. A gorgeous, freckle-faced charmer and a versatile, natural actress, Dorleac starred in a dozen films by her early 20's, including Truffaut's La peau douce and Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac. Although she acted once before with her sister - 1960's Les portes claquent - The Young Girls of Rochefort was their biggest film together, a lush and lavish musical co-starring Gene Kelly and half the dancers in Paris. Sadly, it was also Dorleac's last film. She died in a car wreck in 1969, en route to Rochefort's London premiere.

That, clearly, is the bad news. The good news is that we at least have this deliriously joyful film to remember her by. Dorleac and Deneuve play fraternal twins Solange and Delphine, two musically inclined dreamers who run a children's ballet school in the tiny burg of Rochefort. One sun-soaked, summery day, a fair comes to town, and two amorous carnies (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) invite them to join their traveling circus as a performers, "The Legendary Garnier Sisters".
But what is a career without true love, especially to two beautiful French girls in the springtime of their lives? A lonesome sailor, Maxence (Jaques Perrin), is stationed in Rochefort. Max is a fledgling artist, and his latest painting, "My Feminine Ideal", hangs in a local gallery. He is unsure if he will ever meet the radiant blonde his imagination conjured up, but one thing is for certain - the girl in the painting bares a striking resemblance to Delphine.

Likewise, songwriter Solange has plans to send her latest composition to a famous American band leader, Andy (Gene Kelly) she yet to meet. One afternoon, while picking up her younger brother from school, she literally runs into a suave (and dance-y) American. The two fall instantly in love, but never actually exchange names. Could the dreamy Yank actually be the famous band-leader she's looking for?

Yeah, absolutely.

And will they all find each other before the Garnier Sisters ship off to Paris?

Also yes. It's a French musical with Gene Kelly, man. Everything's going to work out just fine. There is a mad slasher on the loose, though.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is by no means a perfect confection. Michel Legrand's (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) score - despite being nominated for an Academy Award - is sluggish and same-y, and none of the principal players, apart from Gene Kelly, actually sing their parts. For a musical, those are both potentially lethal blows. But the film rises above it's sometimes turgid musical numbers on the wings of its two stars. Effervescent and enchanting, Dorleac and Deneuve are literally a joy to watch, as is the nearly non-stop array of in-the-streets dance numbers and the inspired pastel-colored sets and costumes. There are just too many amazing things happening at once for this film to fall flat. From the lovely sisters to the pop-art inspired production design to the breathless beauty of France in the swinging 60's, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a rare and delicious treat.

Obviously, a G-rated musical is a hard-sell for committed sleaze-beasts, but I would invite you to watch Deneuve and Dorleac perform their signature number "Twins of Gemini", and then decide. My guess is, some part of you will melt, if even just a little.

- Ken McIntyre

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