Jacques Demy’s ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ Is Awash With Color — and Influence

How much did La La Land draw from the distinctive look, music, and atmosphere of this 1967 French classic?

La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz recently told an interviewer that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) — two 60s-era musicals by Jacques Demy — were “huge influences”. As you watch this new Criterion release of Young Girls (in French, with English subtitles), you get the feeling that “huge” may have been an understatement.

That sensation begins with an opening scene that clearly inspired the now-famous freeway number in La La Land. From the moment a traveling carnival loads onto a suspended transport bridge leading to the maritime military community of Rochefort and everyone gets out of their vehicles and begins stretching, then dancing, with more dancers joining in flash-mob style as the song progresses, you begin to appreciate the rich influence that The Young Girls of Rochefort had on Hurwitz and La La Land director Damien Chazelle. The sense of release and the jazzy riffs in the opening song and others in the Oscar-nominated score by composer Michel Legrand — especially the “Twins Song” — seem so close to what you hear in La La Land that it’s tempting to go online and compare them. Are they identical? No, but they’re clearly musical cousins.

La La Land was also obviously influenced by the distinctive look of The Young Girls of Rochefort. Demy’s homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age of Musicals has a palette that’s been described over the decades as “candy-colored”. A bonus feature on this Criterion release confirms that more than 1,000 shutters in the provincial town were repainted for the film, all in cheery pastels. Indeed, The Young Girls of Rochefort is bursting with spot color, and that especially includes the dresses of the two “young girls” — something that movie lovers would see again in Emma Stone’s standout dresses in La La Land.

Unlike Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg however, which was totally sung and almost totally dramatic, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a lighter, more traditional Hollywood-style musical, a buoyant affirmation of life’s possibilities — cheery and peppy, even as misconnections abound or life disappoints. If Hollywood is the dream factory, Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort is one heck of a factory knock-off. And being French, it has an oblique ending that also seems to have influenced last year’s Almost Best Picture winner.

As with La La Land, the narrative revolves around two dreamers, but in this case it’s a pair of sisters. Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) teaches dance, while her twin, Solange (Deneuve’s real-life sister Francoise Dorléac, who sadly was killed in an automobile accident not long after the film’s release), composes and teaches music. Both want more than sleepy little Rochefort has to offer — more culture, more opportunities as artists, and better odds of meeting “Mr. Right”.

George Chakiris, Francoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve, and Grover Dale go full-metal musical.

Their mother, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), still regrets leaving a man who, in retrospect, was the love of her life, and all because of his silly last name: Dame, which annoyingly would have made her “Madame Dame”. Now she operates a sleek, modern cafe prominently situated on Colbert Square, and in the film the cafe is both visually and thematically central. Bonus features largely ported over from a previous release suggest that Demy was so enamored by the gigantic square that he constructed the cafe in order to take full advantage of the location — one now so associated with the film that people often call it “Demoiselles Square”.

The “young girls” (the sisters were 26 and 24 when the film debuted) aren’t the only dreamers. Poet-sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin) has a vision of his ideal woman and has even painted what she looks like, while the elderly Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) has returned to Rochefort to open a music shop, hoping to find the woman he had fallen in love with a decade ago. Meanwhile, successful composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly), who had come to Rochefort to help a friend, has a brief encounter with a girl who will capture his own imagination.

While two of the carnies who ride into town, Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), are too carefree to focus on a single woman, they act as the catalyst for the narrative action, giving everyone’s wheels of fortune a metaphoric spin — especially the sisters. After two of the carnival’s dancers run off with sailors, Etienne and Bill promise to take the twins with them to Paris if they’ll replace the girls and perform in the show.

The Young Girls of Rochefort composer Legrand credits Demy for the atmosphere, style, and story, but that seems generous. The music is so much a part of it all, and a vintage bonus feature shows a heightened level of collaboration between the two men. Demy said that he wanted to create a film that, despite being a tribute, was unmistakably French. Indeed, there’s far more cigarette smoking in The Young Girls of Rochefort than in Hollywood musicals, along with a more casual attitude about having lovers in addition to any pie-in-the-sky dreams about meeting the ideal mate.

The Young Girls of Rochefort’s exuberant homage to Hollywood musicals especially extends to dance routines. After luring Kelly into doing his first movie musical since George Cukor’s Les Girls (1957) and getting Chakiris to dance again for the first time since he played Bernardo in West Side Story (1961), Demy rewarded them, and viewers, by featuring choreography that showcased moves from their signature musicals, Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. In one of Kelly’s numbers, the director has painted the buildings on a narrow street and filmed it in such a way as to suggest a Hollywood back lot, it looks so staged. Instead of an umbrella for a prop, Kelly interacts with street children and jumps into an open convertible instead of puddles. Likewise, several of Chakiris’ numbers with other men, both interior and exterior, will have you thinking back to when he was the leader of the Sharks, the choreography and staging are that evocative.

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve as The Young Girls of Rochefort

But in The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy also puts his own mark on the Hollywood musical. Most noticeably, he conflates his exteriors and interiors in fascinating ways. Windows are an important part of his mise en scène, and always those windows are full of activity, so that the exteriors become a part of Demy’s interiors. That’s especially true with Yvonne’s cafe, with its enormous windows linking the cafe’s interior to the square and its vehicles, pedestrians, and carnival workers preparing for the big show.

The music shop, with its pristine white interior that makes the instruments hanging on the walls, have the same “pop” of color as the sisters’ dresses. It also has a much smaller window and door, but even they are featured prominently in shots, often dead center or just slightly off. And always, there’s motion in those background windows and doorways, constant activity that adds to the film’s vitality.

All of that comes across in the more than two hours of bonus features, the best of which is The Young Girls Turn 25, a 1993 documentary by Demy’s widow, filmmaker Agnes Varda, that takes Deneuve back to Rochefort to relive the experience, while interviews with cast and crew intercut into the narrative add breadth and depth. Viewers are shown some of the actual locations — the Hotel De Ville and mayor’s office, for example — where the interiors were shot, and get a sense of how meaningful yet fun the film was to Rochefort and the cast.

“If you’re shooting outdoors with music, it turns into a party,” Deneuve recalls. Viewers learn that the two female leads worked on their dances in England, where they also learned to lip-synch the songs. Of the stars, only Darrieux did her own singing, and even that astounds, as the lip-synching is as wonderfully precise as the dance steps.

Of the remaining bonus material, two 1966 features stand out. One is a fly-on-the-wall look at Demy and Legrand working together on the score, which then morphs into an interview with the two men talking about how different this film is from Umbrellas; the other is Part 2 of Andre Delvaux’s six-part series made for the Belgian TV show Behind the Screen — an episode featuring production designer Bernard Evein that includes a generous amount of footage from rehearsals and shooting.

In watching the 2K restored 2011 transfer of The Young Girls of Rochefort on Region 1 Blu-ray, you find yourself transported — not just to the Golden Age of Hollywood, or to a more recent film that clearly took inspiration from Young Girls, but also to a musical world that Demy, Legrand, and Evein managed to make distinctively their own.

RATING 8 / 10