Once Upon a Town
Updated: Nov 24
The best thing about discovering new musicals is the element of surprise, a chance encounter that you couldn't have anticipated but ended up welcoming into your life just the same. If you're fortunate enough, you might stumble upon a long-forgotten classic that had previously slipped under the radar, only to come to the conclusion that it's one of the best films you've ever seen. And on the rare occasion that you do unearth an unexpected treasure, the likes of which you've never experienced before, consider yourself lucky. Everything you thought you knew about movies is about to change.
While browsing a vast selection of used DVDs at Waterloo Records, an Austinite's go-to for all things music and movies, I happened to come across an interesting title I had never heard of or seen. My curiosity was piqued. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) was both a novelty and a revelation, made all the more intriguing thanks to its peculiar name and the casting of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Although I had watched several of Gene's American films throughout my musical journey, I did not expect to see him gracing the rather whimsical cover of a French release from 1967. As with most of my Wonderland experiences, this was a viewing opportunity I could not turn away and one that I was unlikely to regret or, as it turned out in the end, ever forget.
Many filmmakers have attempted to bring musicals to life over the years, but only those with a genuine passion for the genre have managed to transform them into works of arts. As in the case of 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg), a dramatic piece that preceded and set the stage for The Young Girls of Rochefort, New-Wave director Jacques Demy's mastery is second to none.
Both of his movies, while certainly fueled by a fondness for classic musicals, were intended for an entirely different audience and presented at a time when cultural norms and traditional values were being challenged. The former title is often praised for its revolutionary use of dialogue – sung in its entirety from beginning to end – and a bittersweet storyline that reconstructs the notion of a happy ending. By comparison, its follow-up takes a more lighthearted and upbeat approach to storytelling that's equally as effective but perhaps less melodramatic. To pick a favorite entry among the two lavishly orchestrated and impeccably produced films is no easy feat and ultimately a matter of one's viewing preference, but there is something satisfying about The Young Girls of Rochefort and its depiction of a reimagined world where anything is possible that makes it a surefire winner.
As a procession of trucks arrives in Rochefort, bringing with it the makings of a weekend festival and one seriously infectious ballet sequence, the 1967 story takes a journey into the heart of a seaside town and the everyday lives of its locals and visitors. At each turn and on every corner are splashes of color – painted over 40,000 square feet of the city's exteriors – that are as stunning as they are surreal, blurring the line between reality and fantasy while setting the mood for what is about to unfold in the lives of Rochefort's inhabitants. Shooting for anything less than the stars is simply not an option amid such accommodating surroundings, and the dreams of fraternal twins Delphine and Solange Garnier, one a dancer, the other a composer, are twice as big as anyone else's.
Even though Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn were originally considered for the iconic leading roles, Jacques' casting of real-life sisters Françoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve, who had already worked with the director on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and went on to become an award-winning French actress with a prolific career, was more than justified. With the right blend of camaraderie, sophistication and poise, the Garniers became a household name among French audiences and an essential part of pop culture that is often imitated but never duplicated – especially when it comes to reproducing one of the most captivating musical numbers to appear in the film.
While "A Pair of Twins" ("Chanson des Jumelles") was sung primarily in French, an English version of the song, along with a full soundtrack, was recorded simultaneously. But despite the effort of filming certain scenes in each language, as well as the extensive dubbing work that went into the overall production, the United States release performed poorly in theaters and has since been removed from circulation.
Even though some international viewers remember watching the American rarity when it was broadcast on network television in the 1980s, particularly in Brazil, most Rochefort enthusiasts have yet to find the alternate version of the less superior movie, which has never been released on home video, in its entirety. To this day, the only visual evidence that remains of the alternate cut is a handful of musical numbers and several behind-the-scenes segments that often resurface in Jacques Demy-affiliated documentaries. As they say in French, "C'est la vie!"
While the presentation of song, dance and costuming is depicted in its finest form throughout The Young Girls of Rochefort, skillful techniques such as the use of lighting and special effects are just as creative and worthy of recognition. From simpler scenes where Delphine and Solange are individually showcased via close-up shots during a tableside conversation, to more dramatic overtures with camera pans that accompany the fated meeting of future lovers, the artistic elements of the film are quite striking and truly innovative. Equally as unforgettable as the movie's cinematic qualities is the source material that Jacques Demy brings to life on the big screen, depicting fate as a powerful force in the existence of several characters whose destinies are closely intertwined.
Delphine's soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, Guillaume Lancien (Jacques Riberolles), adds a mysterious piece of artwork to his gallery collection and deceives Delphine when she asks about the painter's whereabouts. Maxence, played by Jacques Perrin, is a sailor with a dream of finding the imaginary muse behind his original painting – a woman bearing a striking resemblance to Delphine – who becomes acquainted with the twins' mother, Yvonne Garnier (Danielle Darrieux). Reminiscing about the long-gone days of her youth, Yvonne recalls a decision to leave the father of her youngest child, Booboo, during a number that still exists in the English-language rendition of the film. Music shop owner Simon Dame, portrayed by Michel Piccoli, shares a similar account of losing the woman he once loved with Solange, who is, in turn, searching for an American composer named Andy Miller. When Solange runs into a handsome stranger on the street, her sheet music spilling everywhere, she rushes off without learning his name. But as far as the audience is concerned, the man in question needs no introduction.
Gene Kelly is one of several Hollywood talents to star in The Young Girls of Rochefort, portraying the composer during his visit to France alongside carnival workers Étienne and Bill – played by Grover Dale and West Side Story's George Chakiris. Fluent in French, he is the only actor whose speaking voice, with the exception of synchronized sequences sung by Don Burke, is undubbed. At 55 years old, Gene is still in top form, as elegant as ever and waiting to impress his viewers with innovative dance routines that have become synonymous with his professional legacy. An appearance for the ages made by a timeless performer is one of many gifts that the movie offers to its viewers.
The tendency of some directors to utilize the same set of actors in their movies is not limited to Hollywood alone. Years after her appearance as Yvonne in The Young Girls of Rochefort, Danielle Darrieux worked with Jacques on 1982's A Room in Town (Une Chambre en Ville), one of the director's later works. Trading in Maxence's sailor suit for royal garb, Jacques Perrin played a young prince in 1970's Donkey Skin (Peau d'Âne), while Catherine Deneuve, aside from her performance in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, appeared in both Donkey Skin and 1973's A Slightly Pregnant Man.
Marc Michel, though missing from The Young Girls of Rochefort, reprised the role of a character named Roland Cassard from Jacques' 1961's masterpiece, Lola. Caught up in a romantic whirlwind with a flighty cabaret dancer, after whom the film is named, young Roland becomes involved in a diamond-smuggling operation and has no choice but to follow the newly defined trajectory of his life when Lola elopes with a former partner. Years later, in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Roland is a wealthy jeweler and has his sights set on the hauntingly beautiful Geneviève Émery, played by Catherine Deneuve. Roland is ultimately redeemed as he gets a second chance at love and begins to understand why it never worked out with Lola; the only problem is that Geneviève's heart belongs to someone else. A reference to Lola in The Young Girls of Rochefort not only pays homage to the filmmaker's 1961 directorial debut but serves as yet another entry in his personal universe of interconnected relationships and shared experiences.
Across a variety of genres – from Wes Anderson's casting of Bill Murray to Quentin Tarantino's depiction of Samuel L. Jackson and even Tim Burton's partnership with Johnny Depp – recurring collaborations between stars and filmmakers can be quite effective; Jacques Demy's decision to bring back familiar faces is just as ambitious and strategic as those of his peers.
Amid the various love stories that unfold in the town of Rochefort, it is Maxence and Delphine's depiction of soulmates trying to find each other that is the most compelling. Meant to be together, the young sailor and dancer interact with the same people but end up missing each other by mere seconds. The potential for a run-in between the two becomes a focal point of the plot on several occasions, and the possibility of a meeting lurks overhead as several situations unfold and key events begin falling into place.
Abandoned by their girlfriends, both of whom were scheduled to perform at the festival, Étienne and Bill go in search of a replacement act. To their relief and delight, Delphine and Solange agree to lend a hand. Amid the gathering crowd of onlookers and attendees, the twins – impeccably dressed from head to toe – take to the stage and put on a show that is expressive, stylish and even reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell's performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The two siblings are rewarded for their efforts with a ride to Paris but are ultimately separated, Delphine choosing to take a leap of faith and journey to the City of Light without her sister or Guillaume, who makes a last-minute attempt to win her back. As Solange returns to the music shop and is surprised by what she discovers, a determined Yvonne makes a startling realization that bridges the gap between her bittersweet past and potential-filled future.
A celebration of reunion and reconciliation eventually breaks out in the town square, drawing upon the movie's particular strengths of color and choreography to deliver a full-blown musical extravaganza, complete with Gene Kelly's signature footwork from 1951's An American in Paris. Slowly but surely, The Young Girls of Rochefort comes to a happily-ever-after conclusion for most parties involved. The only participants who are missing from the festivities are Delphine and Maxence.
Like all good things that must come to end, Rochefort eventually said goodbye to Jacques Demy, his crew and the star-studded lineup of performers who had embraced the town as their own in the 1960s. The story was already written, but the rest of the tale had yet to be told as each decade since the movie's release has led to a new beginning, clamoring for it to be rediscovered and embraced.
A 1993 documentary, The Young Girls Turn 25, saw the long-awaited and nostalgic return of Catherine Deneuve and many of the film's stars and producers to their home away from home. Ten years later, Delphine and Solange Garnier claimed the spotlight once again as a modern adaptation of the musical, featuring all-new songs, was introduced to the French stage by director Daniel Moyne. And thanks to advanced technologies, several of Jacques' most notable titles, spanning a variety of genres, have been meticulously restored and released under the Criterion Collection umbrella in 2014.
Viewers who are accustomed to a traditional style of musicals, one that feels safe and familiar in its adherence to tried and true studio formulas, may struggle with the idea of forsaking convention to watch foreign films envisioned for an entirely different group of moviegoers. The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are an exception to that rule, serving as a direct reflection of Jacques Demy's cinematic achievements and composer Michel Legrand's prolific musical scores.
Though the six-film Criterion Collection box, a movie buff's must-have, offers a deep dive into French cinema and encourages further exploration of an art form that has cultural and historical significance, the two musical masterpieces of Umbrellas and Young Girls have truly stood the test of time, directly inspiring young filmmakers like Damien Chazelle and his resulting work – 2016's La La Land – for generations to come. One movie may be watched without the other, of course, but the combination of both makes for an all-sensory experience that should not be missed.