“The illusion of love is only love unseen”
The fair is in town and love is in the air. Welcome to Rochefort—a little seaside navy town in France full of sumptuously bright colors and plenty of light-footed citizens ready to dance accompaniment for anyone willing to belt their hearts out in song. It’s a harbinger of unrequited love, lost love, and dreamers seeking an ideal they aren’t sure reality possesses. Tourists come and go, laughter is shared, and natives seem to always gravitate back after adventures abroad. The city beckoned for Yvonne Garnier (Danielle Darrieux) to return, setting up shop in the center promenade serving drinks to regulars and newcomers alike as her twin daughters (sisters Catherine Deneuve‘s Delphine and Françcoise Dorléac‘s Solange) work tirelessly on their artistic aspirations for Paris. Destiny awaits them all.
This is Jacques Demy‘s magical fantasy world of true love and happily-ever-afters Les demoiselles de Rochefort [The Young Girls of Rochefort]. At its core is a hopeful future where regretful pasts once resided, built upon a steady dose of coincidences positioning strangers to meet at the point of Cupid’s arrows. Young navy man Maxence (Jacques Perrin) paints his ideal beauty—the spitting image of a woman he hasn’t met. Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) nostalgically opens a music store in his long-gone fiancée’s hometown. The owners of a touring fair (George Chakiris‘ Etienne and Grover Dale‘s Bill) befriend Yvonne who in turn enlists them to collect her son Boubou (Patrick Jeantet) from school. And the enigmatic twins are gradually allowed to acquaint themselves with each at Demy’s meticulous pace.
It’s a breezy affair full of missed connections and too short collisions, one where every character should know or does know everyone else. They begin fooling themselves into thinking a compromise for their happiness might be worth exploring until something strikes them to believe their dreams are actually possible. They wonder why they suddenly feel like they did in a distant past, always led by a sense of familiarity they cannot quite process as we in the audience can by knowing the full scope of every relationship. The film becomes ripe with anticipation as we wait for the moments when everything that should happen finally does, the journey exuding naturalism despite its obvious manipulations. Nothing happens by chance and that certainty is inexplicably a comfort.
Demy exploits these certainties, spreading them out and elongating their durations so we may laugh our knowing laughs and enjoy the songs sung along the way. The musical aspect isn’t merely to infuse melody or movement either, Demy and composer Michel Legrand use it to play with leitmotifs implicitly connecting these characters as their attraction and longing does the same explicitly. Maxence receives his moment at Yvonne’s bar to declare his love for his “feminine ideal” with a catchy tune stored in the back of our minds. When Delphine sees his painting of her but not her on a gallery wall, she falls in love with the idea of him while her own tune commences as an exact mirror of his. The words change but the sentiments don’t.
This duplicity is invigorating with the new paths cut as a result allowing for unseen opportunities the frustrating isolation each has cultivated wouldn’t otherwise provide. It all stems from a truth as simple as Yvonne’s work ethic: she cannot and will not leave her post at the promenade bar. She’s thusly put in a prime position to meet strangers like Maxence, Etienne, and Bill while also forcing her daughters Delphine and Solange to escape their studio to retrieve little Boubou. If not for Yvonne staying put the surprises that ensue can never occur. The “carnies” don’t run into the twins, Yvonne’s ignorance to Dame’s return doesn’t hold water, and the visit from renowned composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly) evaporates into thin air. It’s all silly, but expertly so.
It’s also gorgeous to behold. The promenade’s geometric composition beautifully supplies a dancing grid for huge ensemble numbers in the open air while songs in enclosed areas are heavily saturated with color to invoke its own grandeur. The choreography consists of small movements made larger by the visual scope of their surroundings and the music helps propel the plot while also seeming authentic as a vehicle for conversation. Famed song “Chanson Des Jumelles” isn’t merely a way to meet Delphine and Solange, it’s also a song their characters wrote to be used later as a plot point. In this manner others like “Chanson De Maxence” and “Chanson De Simon” feel real too. These words are sung as a natural reflection of emotion, not for our benefit of entertainment.
They’re singing to each other and not just us—an important difference since I feel most musicals handle their music in the opposite fashion. This realization renders melodies by lovers to be so similar because their love is true enough to embody them with an identical magic. It is Cupid’s doing, not Legrand’s. The notes flow through them as though a spirit driving them forward with excitable suspense. The melodies are like magnets attracting them together even when their actions and minds might dictate something else. So while Yvonne and Dame’s inevitable reunion is helped by their desire to be where they are, the potential for Delphine and Maxence to collide is less purposeful. I love how Demy lets each affair evolve at its own specific pace.
Besides a subplot concerning a sadist murderer—itself revealed as another display of love—everything occurring does so with meaning as far as the three romantic pairs and Etienne/Bill’s lust are concerned. The sailor setting forces those carnies to need a new opening act. Delphine and Solange’s accepting the job forces them to run into the objects of their respective desires. And Paris exists as a utopia awaiting their visit if able to escape Demy’s carefully constructed weekend with hearts intact. The Young Girls of Rochefort is therefore a musical of grand ambition, one that needs cinema’s expansive breadth to truly succeed. I’m sure it would excel pared down for the stage too, but it would pale in comparison to this candy-colored dreamscape free from constraint.