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THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly
Director: Jacques Demy
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: April 11, 2017

"We are a pair of twins, born in the sign of Gemini..."

Film *** 1/2

In 1964, French New Wave director Jacques Demy crafted a film that has since become admired as one of Europe's finest musicals.  That film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, featured a young Catherine Deneuve and was virtually responsible for propelling her overnight to international stardom.  Three years later, Demy re-cast Deneuve in another musical, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort).  This time, his film not only showcased the luminous Catherine Deneuve but also featured her real-life sister, Françoise Dorléac, as well!

The Young Girls of Rochefort is in essence an homage to the whimsical and fluffy-light MGM musicals of the wartime era, particularly of the popular Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "let's put on a show" variant.  The film tells of one enchanted weekend in the lives of two young sisters living in the coastal city of Rochefort.  Deneuve plays Delphine, a talented, young dancer who conducts regular ballet classes with her sister, Solange (Dorléac), an aspiring composer.  From their studio classroom, they can see the entire town bubbling with excitement, for it is the weekend of La fête de la mer (the Sea Festival).  There will be games, songs, and exhibitions galore, with the grand centerpiece of the festivities being the carnival.

As such, the film opens with an ensemble dance that marks the arrival of this traveling carnival into town.  The carnival members cavort along the outskirts of town, and upon reaching Rochefort, they dance some more.  The ringmaster of this troupe, Etienne, is played by none other than George Chakiris, familiar to musical fans as Bernardo, the Puerto Rican leader of the Sharks in West Side Story.  One almost expects a rousing chorus of "America" from him at any given moment, but while Chakiris doesn't sing any Bernstein tunes here, he still dances up a storm.  Etienne and his sidekick, Bill (Grover Dale), set up their carnival and then go to a local cafe, where they announce their arrival to the shop-keeper with their theme song "Nous voyageons de ville en ville" (We Travel from Town to Town).

The bemused shop-keeper, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), just happens to also the mother of Delphine and Solange.  She, too, sings her own theme song in she reminisces about her daughters' long-lost father.  This love theme will be reiterated by a new music shop-keeper in town, a Simon Dame, as he sadly recalls a woman he loved once a long time ago.  Coincidence?  Of course not!  Coincidences don't exist in musicals!

There are actually two more love themes, one for each of the daughters.  Delphine will sing of her dream of meeting her ideal man one day.  The theme is repeated by a young local sailor, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who is an aspiring painter and sings of a portrait he painted of his ideal woman, someone he once glimpsed from afar.  It should not be too surprising to learn that this portrait, currently on sale at a local art shop, bears a remarkable resemblance to Delphine!

The final love theme is Solange's.  It is actually the score to her new piano composition, which she hopes will gain her some recognition.  And, indeed, her music is noticed by a passing composer, Andy Miller, who is in town visiting a friend.  This, of course, leads us to the best casting surprise in the film - the composer, Andy Miller, is played by none other than that Hollywood musical icon, Gene Kelly!  Kelly sings and dances as though he had just stepped off of the soundstage for An American in Paris, and it is still a delight to see this MGM star displaying his musical talents once more!

Everyone get all that?  The film weaves in a great deal more coincidences and subplots than I have described, but to mention any more would merely be too confusing, particularly since the storyline really doesn't matter.  The plot, as with those of the earlier musicals that this film emulates, is ultimately inconsequential and merely serves as a subtext through which to keep the destined lovers apart until the end of the film.

The catalysis that ultimately brings everyone together is, of course, the presence of the carnival itself.  The carnival stirs the imagination of the folks of Rochefort, and everywhere, people are dancing and cavorting happily in the streets.  The Young Girls of Rochefort is a throwback to the free-spirited musicals of yesteryear when anyone could spontaneously erupt into song and dance and frequently did.  While modern musicals try to rationalize why a character might suddenly burst into song, that is not the case here.  In The Young Girls of Rochefort, if anyone wants to start singing, he or she just does so!  The musical genre, by its very nature, is not a reality-based one anyways, so musicals which take themselves too seriously frequently lose the true essence of what a musical should be - fun, carefree, and light-hearted.  In fact, The Young Girls of Rochefort is so unabashedly jovial and so uninhibited at the prospect of being a musical that it even slips in a spoken reference to the film's actual composer!

Aside from the songs, of which I have only alluded to a mere handful thus far, there is the wealth of dancing in this film.  The dancing is not as tightly choreographed or as precisely performed as in Hollywood musicals, but what it lacks in precision, it makes up in abundant enthusiasm.  George Chakiris, of course, is reliable and solid.  Even Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac have several opportunities to dance, including their sister-act routine for the carnival (it's that ultimate theatrical cliché - they go out as youngsters, but they've got to come back as stars).  And then, there's Gene Kelly!  For this film, he has Dorléac as his dance partner, and while she would certainly never be mistaken for Cyd Charisse, it is still a delight to see Gene Kelly in a romantic dance like all the ones he used to perform in his MGM films.

In real life, Françoise Dorléac was only a few years older than Catherine Deneuve and a solid film star in her own right.  The Young Girls of Rochefort showcases the shared qualities that once made Dorléac and her sister such popular French actresses, and although this was Dorléac's final film, it is a rare and thrilling opportunity to see the two sisters working together.

Ultimately, The Young Girls of Rochefort will appeal most broadly to fans of the musical genre.  Those who dislike musicals in general may not be persuaded otherwise by this film, but it is nevertheless a fine homage to the classic MGM style.

Video ****

The Young Girls of Rochefort is presented in a high definition anamorphic widescreen format.  The transfer is quite colorful and has no significant compression defects, although it is a bit soft.  The photography of this film recalls the sparkling Technicolor glow of the classic 1940's musicals of MGM.  While the print shows a few signs of age here and there, on the whole it looks quite good.  This should come as no surprise, considering that the film received a meticulous restoration in 1996 supervised by Agnes Varda (Demy's widow and an acclaimed French filmmaker herself).

Bonus Trivia - A young Varda makes a cameo in the film as a nun who visits a music shop!

Audio *** 1/2

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a French musical, so naturally all the dialogue and songs are in French.  The audio track is a newly remastered 5.1 mix and sounds quite pleasing.  It is quaint to hear French coming from the lips of George Chakiris and Gene Kelly (both are dubbed).  Kelly actually did speak French for his role, but apparently, his accent made him sound more like an American in, uh, Rochefort rather than a native speaker.

On a similar note, the songs are all pre-recorded, and the lip-synching in the film is not always very precise.  Nor, for that matter, are attempts to persuade us that these actors actually play the instruments they are seen tooting or striking very convincing, either.  But, no matter - these minor flaws are overshadowed by the infectiously gleeful energy of the performances themselves.

Michel Legrand's breezy and very jazzy score is also quite good.  It doesn't match the poignancy of his melodies from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but this score still has several catchy tunes.

English subtitles are available and offer an interesting twist - the subtitles to the songs actually rhyme!  As a result, they aren't always exact translations of the French lyrics but do tend to generally convey the spirit of the songs.

Features ***

The extras include a classic TV interview with the director and the composer, a 2014 conversation between Demy biographer Jean-Pierre Berthoma and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau, a piece from 1966 on the making of the film, a 1993 documentary on the movie, and the trailer.

Summary:

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a delightful throwback to the Golden Age of the MGM musicals.  If you enjoy old-style musicals, this light and carefree film will have you humming along to the tunes and tapping your feet to the dancing.

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