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The Young Girls of Rochefort

The Young Girls of Rochefort(1968)

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teaser The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968)

In 1964, French writer-director Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a pastel-colored, 100%-sung musical starring Catherine Deneuve, became an international success, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and scoring five Oscar nominations. It did so well that Demy and his composer, Michel Legrand, soon began to develop another musical, not a sequel but a companion piece -- actually the third of a loose romantic trilogy that had started with Lola (1960).

The new film, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), was made in something of the spirit of Umbrellas, albeit with more traditional numbers interspersed with straight dialogue scenes. Deneuve again starred, this time joined by her sister, actress Francoise Dorleac. They play twins living in the southwestern French town of Rochefort, and the story has a fable-like quality, as the sisters give music and dance lessons while yearning for romance and musical careers in Paris. Injecting further glamour into the film are Danielle Darrieux as the twins' mother, Gene Kelly as a concert pianist who falls in love with Dorleac, and George Chakiris as a dancer who comes to town with a carnival.

Kelly and Chakiris, of course, function as links to the Hollywood musical, a genre to which Demy was consciously attempting to pay homage. Kelly was 51 when he made this film, and his dancing is still excellent, though his voice was dubbed. Chakiris later recalled being offered the film not with a script, but with Demy and Legrand playing the entire score for him. Chakiris's manager recommended not taking the role because it wasn't prominent enough, but, Chakiris later told the Los Angeles Times, "I liked the sound of it myself, so I chose to go ahead and do it. I just think it's a film that holds up... It has such charm."

With Gene Kelly's involvement, Demy and producer Mag Bodard were able to secure backing from Warner Brothers, and filming got underway in the summer of 1966, on location in Rochefort. The budget was bigger than on Umbrellas, allowing Demy to use crane shots and other expensive techniques. He even arranged for thousands of shutters in Rochefort to be painted in bright pastel colors, an example of his exacting vision of the overall color scheme.

Demy's collaboration with Legrand was a close one. Legrand later said: "I remember arriving at [Demy's] house in the mornings to work together. He would stand by the piano with a blank notepad, and I would have a blank music sheet in front of me over the keyboard. I would say to myself, for the moment, nothing exists. But after about an hour, or maybe a day or a week, all these sheets will be filled, and we will have created something new. On occasions, all that was necessary was quick riff on the piano to set the creative process in motion." One of their numbers, "Song of a Summer Day," featuring Deneuve and Dorleac, was designed as a clear tribute to the "Two Little Girls From Little Rock" number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Dorleac had found success as a film actress even before her more famous sister, and she was on the cusp of breaking out into international stardom when she died in a tragic car accident in 1967, at the age of 25. She had completed work on one more film after The Young Girls of Rochefort: Billion Dollar Brain (1967), opposite Michael Caine.

Deneuve went on to a magnificent career and remains one of France's most esteemed and beautiful film actresses. In 1998, looking back on this picture, she told The New York Times, "It's less difficult to watch this film than others with my sister. It was the only film I did with her, but it was a musical. The scenes are so charming and related to what we were as sisters in real life." In another interview, with writer Britt Kelly, Deneuve added: "We were very close, and shooting that film brought us even closer, back to a place and way we had been when we were much younger. Life can give you some terrible knocks, and there's not a happy ending every time. But I do believe in them. I am very optimistic. I am still very romantic about life."

The Young Girls of Rochefort was a commercial hit in France but not in the United States, where a dubbed English-language version was released. Variety said "it has charm, sustained human observation, mixed with catchy music, dances and songs to come up as a tuner with grace and dynamism... An elegant film fable." The film also picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Score. (It lost to Oliver!)

Thirty years later, Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnes Varda, spearheaded the restoration of both The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, whose original Eastmancolor film stock had faded badly. Varda had been on set of The Young Girls of Rochefort and even shot behind-the-scenes 16mm footage, which she incorporated into her 1993 documentary The Young Girls Turn 25. Freshly restored, The Young Girls of Rochefort was re-released in 1998.

By Jeremy Arnold

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