A euphoric swirl of sherbet colors, Jacques Demy’s Hollywood-musical homage The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) elevates even the most mundane actions to the spectacular: Simply crossing the street occasions an ecstatic choreography of cartwheeling and front-flipping passersby. The film, Demy’s fourth, was his follow-up to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the melancholy, all-sung project that still remains the director’s best-known work. And while Umbrellas is unquestionably magnificent, I hope that BAMcinématek’s week-long run of Young Girls in a new DCP restoration will at least make viewers seriously consider which is the greater of the director’s musicals.
Demy once claimed, “I’m trying to create a world in my films.” That goal is floridly realized in Young Girls: During filming in the port town of the title, in southwestern France, he ordered thousands of shutters and façades to be repainted in pastel shades. (Port cities were a favorite setting for Demy; the one he grew up in, Nantes, is the locale for his debut feature, 1961’s Lola.) Spanning roughly 72 hours, from Friday morning to Monday at noon, Young Girls opens with the arrival of a traveling fair; disembarking from their trucks, the go-go-booted carnies move with sinuous, Fosse–like grace on a transporter bridge, all to the tinkling piano of Michel Legrand, Demy’s frequent collaborator. While the performers set up in the main plaza — their exhilaration recalling that of On the Town‘s trio of horny seamen as they race down the gangplank to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to begin their shore leave — viewers’ nervous systems might be overwhelmed by a flood of endorphins. The troupers, led by Etienne (George Chakiris, who played Bernardo in the film version of West Side Story) and Bill (Grover Dale, a Broadway dancer) leap and twirl among bounding sailors, soldiers, and mod moms, dressed in Kool-Aid–colored leotards.
As this exuberant number winds down, a fluid crane shot drops us into the second-story apartment and studio space of twin sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac, Deneuve’s adored real-life sibling). They are the extravagantly bewigged and bonneted demoiselles at the heart of the film, an aspiring dancer and composer, respectively, who’ve grown weary of giving ballet lessons to Rochefort’s tykes and want to ditch their hometown for artistic glory in Paris. Their aspirations, coupled with the imminent carnival, set in motion an intricate plot of love lost, found, and hoped for, of missed connections and chance rendezvous.
The musical numbers of the sœurs are, fittingly, the film’s most buoyant. Their “Song of a Summer Day,” which they perform as a clear homage to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, exhorts us: “Love the cold, love the wind/Love the cities and the fields/Love the sea, love the flames/Love the world and be happy again.” Demy’s lyrics never register as corny imperatives; within the utterly convincing florid, fantastic realm he’s created here, contravening Delphine and Solange’s mandates would be unthinkable. And never mind that Deneuve and Dorléac’s singing is dubbed, like that of all the other actors except Danielle Darrieux, who plays the twins’ mother. Even in a film that so flawlessly carries out its maker’s exacting, effulgent vision, there is still room for imperfections and oddities, which only add to Young Girls‘ abundant charms. Deneuve’s dancing is awkward but no less spirited in “Song of a Summer Day,” and the incongruity of Gene Kelly (playing an American virtuoso composer), still foxy at 53 and resplendent in pink and white, stirring romantic yearnings in Dorléac, an actress 30 years his junior, is merely superficial.
Despite the felicity of that May-December romance, the most magical pairing in this supremely cheering movie is the one between the two cast members who share DNA. Deneuve’s elder by 19 months, Dorléac never reached her younger sister’s level of fame, stardom that was ushered in with the international success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve’s first collaboration with Demy. (The director and Deneuve would reteam twice more after Young Girls, for 1970’s Donkey Skin and 1973’s A Slightly Pregnant Man.) Sadly, we’ll never know what could have become of Dorléac, who died, at age 25, in a car accident just a few months after the French release of Young Girls. Her untimely demise, which seems even crueler in light of the blazingly vibrant woman onscreen, casts the longest shadow on this radiant movie, the penultimate in Dorléac’s slim 16-film corpus.
If “[m]ovies resurrect the beautiful dead,” as per Susan Sontag, this exhumation — of a deceased performer, of an almost 50-year-old French musical — also helps us consider anew those still very much alive. Deneuve, who has credited Dorléac for pushing her onto her career path (“I was unmotivated. Like Sleeping Beauty, I was waiting. My sister was the one who got me into acting”), displays a kind of glee in Young Girls not often associated with her. Watch as she beams and gently strokes Dorléac’s hair, a seemingly unscripted moment of sororal affection, when the latter sings of meeting Kelly’s character. I’d like to think Deneuve’s palpable joy, despite the arduousness of the shoot (chronicled in the 1993 commemorative doc The Young Girls Turn 25 by Agnès Varda, Demy’s widow), stems from the delight she felt in working with her beloved big sis. My delight in watching them, which remains undiminished, even after some 20 viewings in the past 16 years, certainly does.