Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

What places this film for me slightly above director Jacques Demy's other frothy musical, 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is that nothing, absolutely nothing, is taken seriously here. Otherwise, how could we stand it?

The sheer shallow weightlessness gives Rochefort a beauty all its own. Perhaps this is the most aesthetically beautiful satire ever made. And what else could it be but a satire of French pop film when a seemingly kindly old family friend is arrested for the brutal dismemberment of an old woman and it is treated merely as a nonchalant punchline?

As stunning as Umbrellas is in many ways, I argue that Rochefort is far more enjoyable in its loosey-goosey pace and in the small fact that there are moments of spoken dialogue; we're given a chance to breathe in-between musical takes.

And because no one takes any of the romances seriously, Catherine Deneuve is allowed to have a zanier, freer character than in Umbrellas, where she essentially played a petulant Juliet, a symbol of Young Wuv Lost. She (and everyone else) is outfitted gorgeously--save for an unfortunate poofy blue dressing gown Deneuve wears which epitomizes the horrific side of late '60s fashion--and she and her sister are charmingly clunky dancers. Deneuve really seems to be having fun here, with her sly glances and big smiles.

It helps that she's cast opposite her lovely sister Francoise Dorleac. With her heavy red hair, chestnut eyes, freckled face, and even gaze, she is both physically and characteristically the earthier, franker, and more grounded version of her sister. She is the one with the more tangible aspirations, ambitions beyond romance for the sake of romance. She is the steadfast composer, her sister the dreamer. So therefore, we end up far more invested in Dorleac's love story than Deneuve's, who we know, deep down, will be all right because she's ding-a-ling, lovable Catherine Deneuve.

It's sobering that this is one of Dorleac's last films before dying at the age of twenty-five in a violent car wreck. Still, it's nice that one of the final images we have of her is dancing happily next to her sister, standing out as her own distinct and beautiful personality.

The rest of the cast is spot-on. Danielle Darrieux as the twins' mother was the only cast member who sang all her own stuff. Is there anything she can't do? George Chakiris and Grover Dale as Etienne and Bill, the pair of carnies who enjoy nothing but frivolity, are a fun though ill-defined pair; what the hell is their function again? But again, such questions are entirely out of place here. No one has a particular place she needs to be, no particular role he needs to play, and so, everyone is free to let loose and have some fun. Ridiculously blond Jacques Perrin is perfect as dreamy, romantic, artistic sailor Maxence, so swallowed up in his pursuit of his ideal he himself is unreal, making him perfect for Deneuve's flighty ditz.

Dorleac's Solange is paired up with The American. And the sound you hear at The American's entrance is a thousand surprised fangirlish squeals ringing 'round the world.

Gene Kelly fits so well into this world because Demy is in equal parts unapologetically cornball and sleazy, truly sentimental and truly careless. Thus, his sets and songs evoke that nonchalant yet romantic vibe Kelly thrives in. Kelly is undeniably a star, and even though some of the singing isn't his, he owns his presence. His too few scenes with Dorleac are magnetically romantic, pleasantly fizzy and syrupy like a Shirley Temple drink.

Everything ends as it should in Demoiselles de Rochefort. More importantly, it ends as we want it to end, though you might have to stay to the very end to make sure. That we do want it to end in particular ways for particular characters is the movie's surprising strength, since we're not all that emotionally invested in any of the characters. They're likable, but they're paper-thin.

Yet Demy infuses his own obvious enthusiasm into the shallow material until you can almost feel him beaming absentmindedly just off-camera. And that's infectious, in a casual sort of way you barely notice.


  1. Really fine piece on a film I really did not care too much for. My melancholy nature made me a sucker for Umbrellas, but I love what you say about Ms Deneuve in the latter. Makes me curious to take another look at Demoiselles.


    1. I can definitely see preferring one movie or the other depending on your own inclination or mood. I can't imagine two movies that seem more alike on the surface but couldn't be more different in tone.

      Thanks, Esco!

  2. I'm with you on every point. I get so tired of movies getting caught up in reality. It's a movie, you can make stuff up! Everyone can be happy! (maybe not the people involved in the murder) I know it would be shallow if every movie was that way, but I'm so glad there's at least one where even a horrific crime is so sugar-glazed that you hardly notice its mention. And the music is so beautiful. It's silly, but in all the right ways. You've made me want to watch this again right now!

    1. Splendid! I notice it's streaming on Netflix at the moment, so I might just join you in that!

  3. That's an interesting take on the difference between the two films (sadly I haven't seen Demoiselles so I can't weigh in on which I like better). It's a rare thing these days to find a movie that really celebrates frivolousness and light-as-air living.

    "Gene Kelly fits so well into this world because Demy is in equal parts unapologetically cornball and sleazy, truly sentimental and truly careless." My favorite sentence of the review.

    1. What with how everything's less campy and mo' gritty in basically every genre these days, it would indeed by nigh impossible to get something like Demoiselles into theaters. It's a perfect product of its time in that regard. Thanks for the comment, Aubyn!