A piece from this film’s re-release in 1998, published by the old Film.com.
“Joy” is a word so alien to the experience of moviegoing these days that it may not actually occur to audiences to expect it. Nobody feels joy over supposedly escapist fare such as Enemy of the State or Meet Joe Black; you just submit yourself to it and go through the grueling paces. We have arrived at a strange moment when the only auteur of the season to catch the sheer, mad exhilaration of making movies is John Waters, with Pecker.
But, truth be told, the movie temperature was not all that different in 1967-68, when Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort was released. That may explain why this glorious film received a lukewarm response at the time, amid the apocalyptic explosions of Bonnie and Clyde and Weekend. Demy had re-assembled much of the creative team that made Umbrellas of Cherbourg a worldwide hit, including Catherine Deneuve, composer Michel Legrand, and designer Bernard Evein; critics inevitably compared Rochefort to Cherbourg, and missed the bittersweet sadness of the rain on the umbrellas. Rochefort is all sun and light and happy endings. How can such things possibly matter?
Well, they do, they do. Young Girls of Rochefort, restored and re-released under the guidance of Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda (arguably a greater director in her own right than her husband), is the moviegoing experience of 1998. It’s ecstasy without agony. And you know it from the first moments: a band of traveling players approaches the coastal town of Rochefort via an amazing “transporter bridge” (kind of a suspended ferry). The dancers get out of their trucks and perform a wordless ensemble dance that flows into the movement of the bridge, as Demy glides into exactly the right angles on this giddy performance.
The story that follows is Shakespearian in its criss-cross formula—or, perhaps more appropriately, Mozartian, since music is the defining element here. (Not all the dialogue is sung, a la Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but a good 85 per cent is expressed in the fifteen-plus songs.) Twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Francoise Dorleac, Deneuve’s real-life sister, who died shortly after the film was made) plan to set off for Paris to pursue their artistic dreams. Delphine, a dancer, also has an ideal man in mind, little knowing that he will turn out to be a sailor (Jacques Perrin) in town. Solange, a musician, wants to place her new concerto in the path of an American composer (Gene Kelly), without realizing he is the same man she just met in the street and fell in love-at-first-sight with.
The girls’ mother (Danielle Darrieux) runs a little café in the town square, where the traveling players are setting up their fair. (One of the many ironies that add salt to this cotton candy is that this big fair is not an innocent provincial celebration, but a commercial show intended to sell motorcycles and speedboats.) She pines away for an old lover, but doesn’t know that he is now the owner (Michel Piccoli) of a music store frequented by Solange. Meanwhile, two roguish dancers (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) bop around the café and generally mix themselves into everybody else’s lives.
The film is flooded with sunlight and pastels. Of course nowadays the go-go boots and lacquered hair and pop-art shirts are going to look absurd (and, okay, some of the choreography is hilariously bad), but somehow this all adds to the daffy fun of the film. In fact, it may be easier to love this movie now than in 1967, because Demy’s fairy-tale style appears even more perfect and contained, being dated. It takes nerve to portray happiness, and bravery to risk such complete un-hipness. Young Girls is effortless in its rapture, floating along like that suspended bridge, never touching the earth.