If Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) is a film without generic precedent – as an all-sung, jazz opera on film – then his follow-up effort, Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) is a much clearer nod towards the American musical genre. While it may be tempting to think of the two films in tandem, they are actually quite different in tone and structure. The pervasive melancholy and sense of le temps perdu in Les parapluies de Cherbourg is replaced by a preponderance of joy, exuberance, and hope for le temps retrouvé in Les demoiselles de Rochefort; and while the former story spans several years in the lives of a few characters, the latter takes place over the course of one long weekend, in which the lives of multiple characters criss-cross in elaborate, hit-and-miss patterns. Still, like its predecessor, Les demoiselles de Rochefort itself acts as a kind of crossroads at which the nouvelle vague, with its rough-edged aesthetic, intersects with the earlier, more polished “Tradition of Quality” (against which more famous practitioners of the New Wave, chiefly François Truffaut, claimed to rebel).
Stylistically, Les demoiselles de Rochefort bears significant resemblances to the “Tradition of Quality” as characterised by Alan Williams, with its slick production values, emphasis on Frenchness, and star power (1). At the same time, the film adheres to the nouvelle vague aesthetic in key respects, especially in terms of personal expression by an auteur-director, location shooting, and quasi-Brechtian reflexivity and distanciation (2).
Like Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Les demoiselles de Rochefort often employs long takes combined with elaborate camera movements, contributing not only to the production values that tie the film to the “Tradition of Quality” but also – as indirect homages to Max Ophuls and Orson Welles – to the high degree of reflexivity more common to nouvelle vague films. A prime example of this cinematographic strategy occurs as the first big musical dance number transitions into the next scene by way of a long take: an extraordinary, 80-second crane shot that moves from the town plaza up through the second-story window of the dance studio run by twin sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Deneuve’s real-life sister, Françoise Dorléac).
This same segment also introduces the film’s intricate, formal patterns of colour (which stand in marked contrast to the realism of the film’s location shooting in the streets, apartments and storefronts of Rochefort-sur-mer). In the town’s central plaza, dark blue and pastel blue dominate the colour palette, offset by various shades of pink, peach and rust. In extreme long shot, we see that far away on the other side of the plaza, accents on the buildings (doors, window shutters, etc.) match precisely with the colours featured in the foreground. This strategy recurs throughout the film, contributing to a constant, distancing interplay between the realism of the locations and the stylisation of the colour schemes.
In terms of its stars, Les demoiselles de Rochefort has more in common with the “Tradition of Quality” than with the nouvelle vague, which generally tended to use newcomers and non-professionals (3). Danielle Darrieux, who plays Yvonne, the mother of the twin sisters, was a fixture of the French cinema as far back as the 1930s and a favourite star of the cinephilic Demy. Furthermore, she represents another connection to Ophuls, whose films Alan Williams characterises (retrospectively, at least) as the height of the “Tradition of Quality” and whose visual style clearly had a major impact on Demy. Furthermore, the presence of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly, as well as George Chakiris of West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961) fame, evokes the Classical Hollywood musical – a genre more readily comparable to the “Tradition of Quality” than to the nouvelle vague.
Yet one could argue that Demy’s affinity for the musical is not all that different from nouvelle vague forays into other genres, such as the gangster film (François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste [Shoot the Pianist, 1960), the film noir (Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufflé [Breathless, 1960]), and science fiction (Godard’s Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, 1965). We can even find other examples of nouvelle vague musicals, such as Godard’s Une Femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961). Although Demy’s approach to the musical is quite different from Godard’s, Les demoiselles de Rochefort still has its New-Wave qualities.
The “newness” of the film comes not from an usurpation of the genre (as with some of the examples above) but rather in a transformation of it. Demy is neither simply making a “Hollywood musical” nor repudiating the form; he is reinventing it. Cahiers du cinéma described the film as “the first true French musical… the most ambitious film ever undertaken, not because Demy is attempting something apart from the traditions of French cinema, but because he is in the process of creating a tradition” (4).
Differences abound between Les demoiselles de Rochefort and the Hollywood musical, especially in the film’s pointedly non-classical structure. For one thing, Demy’s film lacks a single, clearly defined protagonist, focusing instead on a constellation of characters and potential couples; and missed meetings pervade the plot. Much like Lola (1961), Les demoiselles de Rochefort is structured not so much around a classical series of goal-oriented character actions moved along by causes and effects, but rather around parallelisms between the characters, who constitute a miniature universe more tightly intertwined than any of them realise.
The single largest gathering of principle characters in one place is at a dinner party in Yvonne’s café, a scene set off from the rest of the film in an overtly reflexive way: all the conversation takes place in alexandrines – twelve-syllable lines of verse common in French poetry of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, ranging from the works of Baudelaire to the surrealist Paul Éluard. Their appearance in the film acts not only as a pointed emphasis on French culture, á la “Tradition de la qualité”, but also as a highly reflexive gesture more typical of the nouvelle vague, calling attention to the use of language and Demy’s writing of the script.
Furthermore, reflexivity in Les demoiselles de Rochefort is accomplished through references to the other arts as well. Delphine’s ex-boyfriend, Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), is an art-gallery owner and modernist painter, very much evocative of the art informel movement: his amusingly absurd method involves shooting a gun at a balloon full of paint. Another case in which the plot emphasises painting is the sailor Maxence’s (Jacques Perrin) figure study of his “feminine ideal”, a portrait that looks exactly like Delphine. Furthermore, the film’s title seems a deliberate reference to Picasso’s famous 1907 French painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, whose iconography of prostitution and sailors finds resonance in much of Demy’s work.
Another clear-cut case of reflexivity occurs in one of the film’s featured jazz numbers, which refers to its own composer: “Do you like Ellington? Basie? or do you prefer Michel Legrand?” This shift from Basie and Ellington to Legrand (i.e., from American jazz to French) points up a defining quality of the film: its dual nature as homage to the American film musical and an unabashedly French film.
Demy’s unapologetic affinity for French culture (including French cinema) is perhaps the quality that most sets him apart from his fellow nouvelle vague luminaries, especially the Cahiers du cinéma group. While Truffaut, Godard, and others were busy glorifying the American cinema of Hitchcock and Bogart – and significantly distancing themselves from the “Tradition of Quality” – Demy fully embraced and celebrated earlier traditions of French and European cinema and art, right along with American ones. At the same time, though, he recast those traditions with his own signature style and set of thematic concerns, fully in keeping with the ideal of the auteur-director. As points of intersection between two cinematic approaches often regarded as irreconcilable, Jacques Demy and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort remind us that our understanding of the nouvelle vague and the “Tradition of Quality” is still incomplete.
- Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1992, p. 278.
- Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School, trans. Richard Neupert, Editions Nathan, Paris, 2003, pp. 63-4.
- Marie, pp. 63-4.
- Yamada, Koichi, “Huit et Demy”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 181, August 1966, pp. 8-9.
Les demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967 France 125 mins)
Prod Co: Madeleine Films/Parc Film Prod: Gilbert De Goldschmidt Dir, Scr: Jacques Demy Phot: Ghislain Cloquet Ed: Jean Hamon Prod Des: Bernard Evein Mus: Michel Legrand
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, George Chakiris, Françoise Dorléac, Jacques Perrin, Michel Piccoli, Jacques Riberolles, Grover Dale, Gene Kelly