The color of love

Romantic fantasies are indulged in Jacques Demy's touchingly outmoded musical love letter, 'The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When my best friend and I were both lonely and single and in our 20s, we used to wonder aloud what it would be like to find the perfect boyfriends who would understand us completely. I used to kid her that someday she would round the corner and bump into a guy wearing a T-shirt with her picture on it -- someone who'd never seen her before but who obviously felt certain she was out there somewhere. Sometimes the idea that you could yearn for an unknown lover so badly that you could actually conjure him seems no less impossible than, say, meeting a nice guy at a party.

"The Young Girls of Rochefort," Jacques Demy's gorgeous-looking 1967 musical -- now making its way across the country in a beautifully restored version -- is a living-color cinematic translation of the kind of relief those dreams can bring. It's also a wry reminder that true love depends as much on chance as it does on hard work, good looks or anything else. Demy, who died in 1990, was one of the dreamiest romantics who ever worked in movies: "The Young Girls of Rochefort" was conceived as a companion piece to his lush, heartbreaking 1964 picture "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (which was also released in restored form in 1995, thanks to the efforts of Demy's widow, director Agnhs Varda, who has been the driving force behind the restoration of both films). Both movies -- as well as Demy's 1960 debut, "Lola," starring Anouk Aimie -- dive headfirst, with no embarrassment, into the allure and risk of romance.

"Umbrellas" and "Young Girls" are not equal pictures. Sometimes Demy's emotional directness mingles and smudges with sentimentality -- that's especially true of "Young Girls," whose occasionally awkward bursts of song and elaborately stagy dance numbers make it a far less graceful film than "Umbrellas," which is Demy's true masterpiece. But if you can ride with its quirky rhythms and its flaws, "Young Girls" delivers two purring hours of pleasure. As well as being a love story in itself, it's a musical love letter to the idea of musicals, to the notion that people can suddenly be so overcome with their feelings that they burst into song on the street, or pirouette across a city square. Demy and his collaborator, composer Michel Legrand, hoped to follow the success of "Umbrellas" with a tribute to the splashy, big-scale musicals of the '50s, particularly Vincente Minnelli extravaganzas like "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon." They even enlisted Gene Kelly to play one of the romantic heroes. But in 1967, "An American in Paris" was already 16 years old, and that style of moviemaking had long been outmoded. Part of what's touching about "Young Girls" is that it's so out of fashion for its day, and yet it just doesn't care. It's so out of step it's like a mysterious space traveler, a misfit beauty that's touched down on a planet where decades can melt away in the blink of an eye.

If the dreamy sense of timelessness that hovers around "Young Girls" isn't enough to throw you, then jumping into the plot is like hitching a ride on a carousel in motion. Coquettish and foal-like in their beauty, Catherine Deneuve and real-life sister Frangoise Dorliac play twins Delphine and Solange, who feel trapped in the small coastal town of Rochefort. Solange, a musician and composer, and Delphine, a dancer, support themselves by teaching music and dance to the town's children, but they long to go to Paris, where they can ignite their careers and, they hope, find love. They're modern girls -- in their opening song, they introduce themselves as women who took their first lovers at a young age -- who have been raised by a single mother, Yvonne (played by French screen legend Danielle Darrieux). Yvonne runs a cafe in the town: One of her patrons is a freewheeling young sailor/artist, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who's driven to find the girl of his dreams. He has, in fact, done a small painting of her, and the image is of Yvonne's daughter Delphine, although he's never met her -- he's never even seen her.

In addition to the twins, Yvonne has also borne a much younger son, Boubou, out of wedlock; although she loved the father, she had refused to marry him because of his silly surname (she would have been "Madame Dame") and had run off to Mexico, leaving him heartbroken. Years later, she still pines for him, and he for her: She doesn't realize that he's recently moved to Rochefort from Paris, to open a music store. The store owner/jilted lover, Simon -- played with stately charm and earnestness by Michel Piccoli -- has befriended Solange, and he's promised to introduce her to an old friend from his conservatory days, the now-successful composer Andy Miller (Kelly). But before he can, Solange meets Andy serendipitously on the street, without knowing who he is; it's love at first sight, although the two lose each other for a while. There are also two flirtatious yet well-mannered carnies, George Chakiris (best known as Chino in "West Side Story") and Grover Dale, who've drifted into town for a fair and who, after their girlfriends desert them for sailors, begin circling Delphine and Solange like polite heat-seeking missiles.

By the end of the movie, the love stories have intertwined like tendrils, and there's lots of singing and dancing along the way. Unlike "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Young Girls" is not completely sung -- the musical numbers spring up between patches of dialogue. Sometimes those numbers are too clumsily enthusiastic: The fulsome swell of a piano concerto overwhelms the delicacy of some of the love scenes, for example. And the movie opens with a group of scrubbed-clean Up with People types descending on the small town square, practically dazzling it to death with their painfully white sportswear and overly stylized, all-elbows-and-angles dance routine.

But before long the songs, and the performers, have drawn you in. Legrand's music (Demy wrote all the lyrics, as he did for "Umbrellas") is enchanting: it's springier, jazzier, than that of "Umbrellas," less lyrical but crackling with wit and energy. When we first meet Delphine and Solange, they're wrapping up a lesson with their pupils. They hustle the kids out, change into sleek little shift dresses and fabulous confectionery hats and launch into "The Twins Song." "We're a pair of twins, born under the sign of Gemini/Who love catchy tunes, silly puns and repartee," they sing, their leaps and ballerina twirls punctuating the ridiculous joyousness of the words. Dorliac and Deneuve play off each other beautifully -- there's a slight frisson of both annoyance and subtle flirtation between them, but there's also always true affection. (Their easy chemistry is even more poignant in light of the fact that Dorliac died in a car accident shortly after the movie was completed.) And everywhere you look in "Young Girls," there are eminently likable performers to support the two leads: Chakiris is particularly appealing, and his dancing is stunning -- he's a pompadoured hipster gazelle. But of all the satellites that swirl around the girls, Kelly is, of course, the most remarkable. A lighter-than-air dancer even at the age of 55 (although it should be noted that in "Young Girls" neither his face nor his body come close to betraying his age), Kelly breezes into the movie with confident ease and grace, making his relatively small role seem much bigger than it is. He's one of the few performers of our era who could not only carry off a lilac sport coat, but also turn it into a symbol of enlightened masculinity.

That jacket is just a small feature of "Young Girls," but it's a significant one: For Demy, the arrangement of colors, their saturation, their movement, were vehicles to move the story along, ways to tell small secrets about his characters. His love affair with color is one of his greatest legacies, which is why it's so fitting (and such a relief) that two of his most ravishing color films have now been restored. If a movie's colors could make you cry, surely it would be these: There's so much deliberate care in the way, say, a basket of vibrant yellow lemons contrasts with the raspberry of a woman's dress, and yet the composition also seems completely organic, a simple reflection of the wacky contrasts found all over nature. At the end of the movie, when all the lovers finally pair off, you realize their outfits all color-coordinate perfectly, a sign from the heavens that they were made for each other. For Demy, romance and color were inseparable, and as elemental as air and water.

Demy also understood color as sheer entertainment, and that's probably why, if you can let yourself sink into the plush hues and visual lyricism of "The Young Girls of Rochefort," its various little problems shrink away. Yet the movie isn't just a piece of froth. Even in the midst of all those cheerful French blues and cherry reds, Demy has shown us his characters' longing so vividly that it can never quite be erased. Even after they've all found their happiness, you don't think they'll ever quite forget what loneliness is -- it's the cloudy landscape you leave behind as you drive into the sunny horizon ahead. The traveling carnival workers in the movie sing a silly, wonderful number about their freewheeling life, moving from town to town and from girl to girl: "They call us carnies, but poets are what we are." That's Demy in a single line.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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