The Good Life
Ryan Swen on The Young Girls of Rochefort
The assumptions we make about monolithic national or ethnic identities often affect the way we talk about cinema. My youth reflects a typical Asian-American experience: both of my parents are Taiwanese and emigrated to the U.S. for college, and I grew up in a Southern California county with a famously high percentage of Asians. A curious combination resulted from this: I was never not immersed to one degree or another in my Chinese roots—eating home cooking, hearing my parents speak Mandarin, my own failed attempts to learn the language, occasional visits to Taiwan and China—but such a constant presence of Asians both at home and at school led me to instead focus on the American aspect of my identity. My sense of nationalism manifested itself in many ways, with a love for U.S. history above all, and it wasn’t until I was removed from both this familial and communal environment that I began to connect with my heritage, a process that has been long and fruitful.
As it is with the personal, so it is in the realm of cinema. Ascribing only a very narrow set of national or regional influences to a director or filmmaker has come to feel like a fool’s errand, with the rise of openly, internationally cinephilic filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Olivier Assayas, and Bi Gan, but artistic cross-pollination existed well before the succession of New Waves that circled the globe. In this light, what national identity can be deduced lies in a gray area, one that expresses as much about a director, cast, and crew’s sensibilities and artistic allegiances as it does about setting and country of origin.
Few examples have been more dazzling or personally formative as the musicals of Jacques Demy. As with many cinephiles, I began my cinematic self-education within that flawed but valuable agglomeration the Criterion Collection, moving through the typical European and Japanese art-house classics. I distinctly remember the two consecutive days in September when I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). At the time, I had no way to frame them aside from the French New Wave connection; I almost certainly had heard the name Agnès Varda just once or twice and was likely only vaguely aware of the differentiation between the Cahiers du cinéma cadre and the Left Bank. But these two films, especially Rochefort, were every bit as pivotal in cementing within me an innate Francophilia as the best of Godard and Truffaut, which provided the bedrock for continuing journeys down less trod pathways in French cinema.
My experience with these films instilled a kind of anxiety when it came to watching any other works within Demy’s oeuvre. It wasn’t until last year that I finally slipped back into his world once more, via a 35mm screening of his likable Los Angeles–based Model Shop (1969). I hadn’t rewatched The Young Girls of Rochefort, my favorite of his movies, since 2017. Not that it’s ever left my life: as I do with numerous films, I often return to choice moments at random intervals, and the melodies from Michel Legrand’s songs frequently cascade in my mind. My hesitation to fully return probably reflects the fact that I didn’t want to potentially taint one of my fondest cinematic memories. Knowing it had a slightly lesser reputation in comparison to its legendary predecessor, I was slightly baffled at what I perceived to be a slapdash approach to its choreography and even its singing, then became charmed and moved by the intensity of its crisscrossing romances, before letting out a sharp cry of pain at the missed connection of Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Maxence (Jacques Perrin). So strong was this memory that I completely forgot I had seen it a second time a little less than a year later.
I needn’t have worried about it diminishing: The Young Girls of Rochefort remains perhaps the most radiant film I’ve ever seen, even when watching it on my laptop seven months into a potentially endless state of semi-quarantine. Its ebullience rests largely in its synthesis and transformation of those most obvious of French cinematic stereotypes: an obsession with love and sensuality, extended conversations about overtly philosophical subjects. It would be entirely unfair to simplify the contemporaneous achievements of the other French New Wave directors to those attributes, but there is a marked difference between, say, Jean-Luc Godard’s deconstructed musical A Woman Is a Woman and Demy’s use of the genre. Even Demy’s fellow directors were comparatively restrained at this time: to name just two examples, the science-fiction stylings of Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures and the time travel mechanics of Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime are accomplished with minimal means, largely based on editing or structure rather than Demy’s juxtaposition of elements within the frames. When I first saw Rochefort, I had little knowledge of all this, but both then and now the film feels like an extension of what French cinema is capable of: simultaneously analyzing and embracing the ideas at play. It is at once an intellectual and an instinctual movie.
In preparing for this viewing, I finally caught up with three films that only reinforced my understanding of where Demy was coming from in terms of his myriad influences: his first two features, Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963), and Vincente Minnelli’s classic Gene Kelly-starring musical An American in Paris (1951), all containing elements elaborated upon in Rochefort. If there is one thing beyond the setting and romance that connects the disparate strands of Rochefort, it is the disunity that such a variety of narratives and musical styles implies. Michel Legrand’s songs seem to hail from different genres while generally retaining a jazzy spirit, the dancing ranges from expert to amateurish, and there are numerous careening tonal shifts. Chief among these is the famed axe murderer subplot, conveyed mostly in song, but there’s also the spiteful art dealer Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), the itinerant carnies Bill and Etienne (Grover Dale and George Chakiris), who in another, more traditional film would function mostly as obstacles to the achievement of true love for the main characters.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once called the film, with some significant caveats, “quintessentially French,” citing its sense of community, its inhabitants’ pervasive love of art, and unyielding sense of yearning. It’s worth extending that line of thinking to what it means exactly for Demy’s films. First and foremost, it is manifested in his locations: each of his first four films takes place by the sea, usually in a port; the main character of Bay of Angels spends only a few minutes in Paris before fleeing to the Riviera. Demy grew up in Nantes, the setting of his debut Lola, and the coast provides both an openness and warmth that places Demy’s work apart from most Nouvelle Vague directors (save perhaps Rohmer). Demy’s later Model Shop, as Thom Andersen so indelibly put it, had a “vision of the city [that] didn’t extend east of Vine Street,” taking place in the sunnier, more wide-open environs of oceanside Santa Monica. There is a refusal to be contained by looming cityscapes that is expressed in his penchant for craning and swooping cameras on extended dollies as his characters move amid throngs of people dancing with choreography that puts more emphasis on the lightness and freedom of motion than technical prowess.
While defining the film in relation to the precision of the American studio system might ascribe impossible standards of quality to Hollywood filmmaking, such a classification helps centralize the complications of Demy’s Frenchness, a notion that comes to a head in Rochefort. The most obvious avatar of this is in Gene Kelly’s presence as a celebrated American pianist, which deliberately echoes his expatriate painter in An American in Paris. But the film’s relationship to American filmmaking traditions appears throughout, from featuring West Side Story star Chakiris (alongside Dale, who also appeared in the original Broadway run) to the jazz that weaves through Legrand’s score, so removed from the operetta framework of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Of course, An American in Paris, the film that most directly looms over Rochefort, itself epitomizes a blurring of lines between classical and jazz via the music of George Gershwin. It, too, features a mélange of genres, from the personas that Leslie Caron adopts in a fantasy dream sequence—which Demy seems to homage in a scene of Delphine and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) running through a panoply of musical genres in an effort to please Bill and Etienne—to the chanson stylings of Georges Guétary to the famed ballet sequence that closes the film.
What An American in Paris lacks, and what Rosenbaum pointed to so astutely in Demy’s cinema, is the sense of community within the locales he chooses. An American in Paris more or less discards all of its secondary characters at the close to furnish a happy ending for Kelly and Caron; and similarly in French New Wave films of the period a true sense of fraternity, as opposed to atomized characters, only rarely appears (save perhaps in Rivette). Nevertheless, the idea of characters as part of the same microcosm is constantly present within Rochefort. Obstacles are never mere devices to pad the plot, but instead add another level to the film’s constellation of dreaming souls, who collide and pinwheel off of each other in interactions governed by the whims of fate. Demy has the sense to distinctly show how even similarly related characters can ultimately have different goals: while Delphine and Solange resolve to go to Paris together to pursue their aspirations, they end up separated at the end of the film, each following her own destiny and sense of artistic and romantic fulfillment. This level of detail extends far down the cast list, even to a server at the pommes frites stand that their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) runs, who gets her own catharsis after existing mostly in the background for the whole film.
In Demy’s film, all of these ideas can and must exist in concert with the conventions of the musical genre. The American films that Demy drew on generally proposed the act of song and dance as a means of escape, whether via direct fantasy (as in An American in Paris) or meta-cinematic playfulness (Singin’ in the Rain), but The Young Girls of Rochefort opts for something closer to reality. Songs become part of the movie’s texture; the recurring images of characters dancing in the streets without any direct motivation always serve to highlight a given character’s specific concerns, resulting in a universal sense of joy and love. Rosenbaum’s citation of its “giddy, indefatigable élan” sounds accurate, but even more than that it serves a purpose closer to the purely emotive or phenomenological. It is the sight and spectacle that produces a response, constantly clashing with the viewer’s sense of any given scene’s dynamics in order to open up their sense of the narrative and aesthetic possibilities therein.
It’s this spectacle that continues to set The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Demy’s filmography in general, apart. This isn’t to say that other French directors, or some of his working contemporaries, never moved into this territory: the late films of Alain Resnais are practically baroque in their mise-en-scène, and the Diagonale movement with directors like Paul Vecchiali, Jean-Claude Guiguet, and Marie-Claude Treilhou arguably signaled an evolution of Demy’s sensibility in the 1970s. But for me, Demy’s film continues to act as a totem for all the invention and idiosyncrasy upon which Nouvelle Vague filmmaking rests. Too often, French cinema is boiled down to a few tropes or stylistic tics, and I am endlessly grateful for films like The Young Girls of Rochefort, which never fail to explode these perceptions and to cast a light forward.