Monday, June 4, 2012
The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy followed up his musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with a second Catherine Deneuve musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, a delightful companion piece that continues the throughline of Demy's sustained examination of love, longing, and separation, a thematic current that extends back not only to Umbrellas but to Demy's debut feature Lola. This is a more conventional musical than Umbrellas; not all of the dialogue is sung, and the song-and-dance numbers here are overt breaks in the diegesis as they are in most musicals, and as they weren't in Umbrellas, where the music was smoothly incorporated into the quotidian so that everything was transmuted into song. Despite the differences, Demy, again working with composer Michel Legrand, has concocted another marvelous tribute to the Hollywood musical form, with bright, popping colors, energetic choreography, and musical numbers that burst out of ordinary reality with all the force and beauty of a dream, elegant movements that become dances, open expressions of emotion poured out through song. It's dazzling, colorful, and romantic, and though it's not quite as bittersweet or near-tragic as Umbrellas, that undercurrent of melancholy still drifts just below the surface vibrancy.
This is an exuberant fantasy of love and separation, a film in which nearly everyone has an ideal love, someone they may not even have met, or who they only glimpsed briefly, but who is clearly meant for them, destined to be the great love of their lives. The plot is thus a tightly constructed framework of missed connections and improbable coincidences, constant chance meetings and chance misses in which these would-be lovers careen around Rochefort, searching for love and sometimes colliding with it, or nearly colliding with it and passing by none the wiser. There's very nearly no plot beyond this maze of love and desire, the connections between the characters defined by who loves or lusts for whom, who's destined for whom. At the center of the maze are the twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) and their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, the only performer in the film whose voice isn't dubbed for songs). The sisters each have an ideal man who they're searching for without having met him; love for them, as for most of these characters, is an idea before it's a reality, a very romantic Hollywood musical concept. They know exactly what the man they love will be like, and they're simply waiting for their dreams to take shape in reality.
For Delphine, her ideal man will be a sensitive, poetic artist and intellectual, which perfectly describes the sailor/painter Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who just so happens to have painted a portrait of his own ideal woman who looks exactly like Delphine. Throughout the film, these two never meet, though Demy has great fun arranging near-collisions and coincidences that place them just seconds apart, their meeting always imminent — a word that Maxence turns into a pun that he delights in trying out on everyone he meets — without ever actually taking place. That's one source of the film's melancholy, this sense that there's a great love out there for everyone, a soul mate, but that their meeting might not be fated, that in fact fate and chance might conspire to keep them apart rather than bring them together, the precise opposite of the meet-cute conventions of the movie romance.
There's a remarkable shot that prefigures the melancholy of Delphine's story, suggesting that her tale will be streaked with sadness even before she's properly introduced. At the beginning of the film, a carnival is setting up in the main square, the carnies dancing through their preparations, turning their work into choreography. As this number comes to an end, a plaintive, minor-key piano motif slowly replaces the more upbeat tune that had accompanied the choreographed carnies. As the piano melody takes over, the camera begins swooningly drifting upwards, following a few of the carnies as they walk away from the fair ground, and the camera tracks away from them and up towards a window where little girls can be seen practicing ballet. The camera floats through the window and into the studio, where Solange plays the piano while Delphine gracefully strolls between the dancers, instructing them. The combination of the melancholy piano music with that evocatively graceful shot immediately communicates a sense of deep emotions being stirred up, and even though the sisters soon launch into their charmingly upbeat signature tune, that plaintive tune still lingers over them.
That's not the only darkness drifting through the film. As in many of Demy's other films, sailors and soldiers are important figures because war is constantly lurking in the background; as Yvonne says while reading the newspaper, "trouble is everywhere," suggesting the outbreak of war and violence, likely in Algeria, which had so poignantly haunted Umbrellas as well. A café patron says that the soldiers who march in rigorous formation through the streets would "shoot us like rabbits," a rather morbid thought that's contradicted by the presence of the sensitive sailor Maxence, who's consumed by his poetry and his paintings and indifferent to the military maneuvers, simply counting the days until he can return to civilian life. He clearly doesn't belong in the Navy, and one fears for him, fears that he won't be able to escape unscathed.
The many stories of lost loves, missed connections and aborted affairs here are darkly mirrored in the story of an ax murderer who killed a woman he'd loved and longed for many years, suggesting one much more grisly possible outcome for these tragicomic love stories. There's also more than a hint of violence in Delphine's affair with the gallery owner Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), who tries to force her to marry him even though she says she doesn't love him. Guillaume sinisterly makes his abstract, Pollock-like paintings by shooting at bags of paint dangling over a canvas — when Delphine breaks up with him, he suggestively fires at the black bag — and at one point he turns his pistol on Maxence's Delphine-like portrait of the "feminine ideal." It's easy to imagine Guillaume one day moving beyond such symbolic violence and enacting another variation on the ax murderer's revenge for his jilted love.
Despite this undercurrent of violence and ugliness, the film remains relentlessly bright and sunny, its colors unreally bright and clean, this town a place where even an ordinary stroll down the street becomes a lighter-than-air dance for these hazy-eyed romantics. Solange's destined true love is the composer Andy (Gene Kelly), who she meets on the street by chance, holding a loving glance for a few moments before they separate. Kelly's presence here is the surest sign of Demy's love and respect for the Hollywood musical, and he gives the American actor and dancer two of the film's most dazzling dance numbers, which together encompass the full circle of the film's rapturous approach to love. In the first, after meeting Solange for the first time, Andy is so excited that he spontaneously erupts into an exuberant song-and-dance number, skipping through the streets, engaging in impromptu choreography with passersby, and leaping up onto his car — a white convertible like the one in Lola, since Andy is this film's version of a beloved Demy trope, the masculine presence who's intrinsically linked to his car. It's an exhilarating performance, pure emotion translated into motion and music, the essence of the movie musical. At the conclusion of the film, when he's finally reunited with Solange, their love again takes the form of a dance, a graceful and fluid interplay of separation and togetherness that teases the embrace, the kiss, that finally marks the conclusion of this courting dance, before the couple walks away wrapped in each other's arms.
Fittingly for such a romantic, emotional film, it closes with a happy ending several times over, even if it never quite delivers on the inevitable union of one of its potential couples, just dangling the possibility, tantalizing with it, hinting at it several times before coming just close enough to the actuality of it that the mere continued possibility is exciting in itself. It's a wonderful film, bursting with life and joy, tempering the bittersweet emotions of Demy's previous Umbrellas of Cherbourg with the pleasures of love in its anticipation and its fulfillment.