They’re dancin’ in the street—and everywhere else—in Jacques Demy’s sublime musical masterpiece. Freshly restored to eye-popping vibrancy for a weeklong run at BAM, it’s perhaps the finest of the great French director’s paeans to heedless romanticism. Over an eventful weekend, characters swoon and sing their way around the port town of Rochefort, repainted in striking pastels for this production: The women are sisters Delphine and Solange (actual siblings Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac), each hoping to make it big in Paris, as well as their café-owner mother, Yvonne (Dannielle Darrieux), pining for a lover she left ten years earlier.
The men, meanwhile, include dreamy sailor-cum-painter Maxence (Jacques Perrin), forever in search of his “feminine ideal,” and wistful music-shop proprietor Simon (Michel Piccoli), also yearning for a long-lost amour. And who should be visiting from America but lovelorn composer Andy Miller, delightfully embodied by Gene Kelly in one of his last onscreen twirls. (Better to remember this than Xanadu.)
The Young Girls of Rochefort is certainly Demy’s most sprawling canvas, particularly when compared with the tightly focused character pieces—Lola (1961), Bay of Angels (1963) and the all-sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)—with which he made his name. Part of the film’s brilliance is the way it consistently threatens to spin off its impassioned axis, yet Demy exerts rock-steady control over all the melodramatic twists and extreme tonal shifts.
Michel Legrand’s splendid score is a key component, weaving seemingly incompatible musical styles—jazz, pop, classical—into an ethereal emotional through line. Every character has his or her own melodic motif that flits around this vividly fanciful otherworld. Andy may hum a few bars from Solange’s theme, and Delphine might suddenly segue from her own peppy tune into Maxence’s pensive refrain, making for beautifully subliminal connections. Meanwhile, one of the film’s most exquisite nonmusical scenes is a dinner during which every character speaks in rhyme and seems not to know it. In Demy’s universe, even the subconscious is rhythmically inclined.
Though the director made many more movies, Young Girls has the feel of a final statement, if not about Demy’s own career then on the Golden Age Hollywood musicals that inspired him. Deneuve and Dorléac’s glorious tribute to Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is especially suffused with melancholy (and not just because Dorléac died in a car crash soon after production). Young Girls is both a eulogy and an homage to a genre defined by a fancy-free innocence that was out of vogue in the radicalized ’60s. Despite the consistently sprightly surface, there’s a somber undercurrent that lingers even when love triumphs and the music swells.
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