||The first thing you will notice about Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is not the music, but the colour. Despite a leaning towards pastel shades in places, director Jacques Demy filmed his locations and cast in such bright, vivid hues that the whole appearance of the production is like some fantasyland even before the characters start to sing. It was his follow-up to the similarly musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg of three years before, delayed for a couple of years so he could secure the services of a very busy Hollywood star. Was it worth the wait? Considering the value this is held in decades later, the answer has to be a resounding yes.
Back in 1967, however, the attitude of many audiences and critics was, what is this French guy doing trying to muscle in on Hollywood's act - even Hollywood was growing reluctant to make these big, exuberant musicals anymore. But anyone who saw his previous, heart-rending effort would be aware that while the director had a deep love of cinema, he was no slavish copycat, and was determined to place his own stamp on this tale of twin sisters who run a dance academy for kids in the French harbour of Rochefort (the famous cheese is never mentioned - that's Roquefort, and apparently this town was chosen for its spacious town square).
Those twins were played by real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, and offered extra, entirely unwanted layers of poignancy when the latter was killed in a car crash a few months after shooting this and her final film, the Harry Palmer instalment Billion Dollar Brain. They were both released posthumously, and a promising career equal to that of her sister was snuffed out, though a cult legend was born, thanks to films like That Man from Rio and Cul-de-Sac and the way you cannot help wondering if she would have superseded Deneuve in the prestigious nature of her standing in world and French cinema.
But if it is any film Dorléac is recalled for over all, it would be this one, and not only because it was the only one she made with her sibling and you find yourself constantly comparing and matching them throughout. She was given a red wig and painted-on freckles to distinguish her from Catherine, though in their big, shared setpiece, Demy made allusions to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, putting the sisters in similar spangly red gowns, though they were rather more slender and slinky than the Hollywood stars they were cheekily emulating. The fact they're obviously having fun is touching.
Demy did make moves to work in America himself, as did Deneuve eventually, but found himself more at home, well, at home where his idiosyncratic take on what form movies should take was more likely to be welcomed. As good as it is, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort would never be mistaken for something out of Tinseltown, not merely because those sites it played out in were so blatantly French, but because there was something a lot more knowing than the largely unironic projects that had emerged from there in the musical's Golden Age. And yet, here was something just as romantic, no matter its reservations about a life devoted to love.
This was because the characters were denoted by the ache in their hearts, a longing for the Mister or Miss Right who they somehow sense, almost supernaturally, is out there somewhere, and they must hang on until fickle fate lands them in their lives so they may venture off into the sunset together at last. Demy was not cruel enough to dash those hopes, though the tension between what we understand as "movie movie" plots and resolutions and the real world, where such romance may not even arrive, never mind work out for the best, is always somewhere in the back of the film's mind, and at the end we are mostly sure it is a happy one.
Unlike The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, there was spoken dialogue in between the songs, but nevertheless you were never more than a minute away from someone bursting into chanson. Michel Legrand, now a very big deal internationally, composed a tuneful, wistful, playful score, maybe not with the unbeatable hit of their previous collaboration, but decidedly effective nonetheless, and the actors mimed their way through it, aside from vintage star Danielle Darrieux, who presumably insisted on her own voice being heard. The most jarring instance of the dubbing was for that aforementioned Hollywood celebrity.
He was Gene Kelly, the most famous musical star of the previous decade (though Fred Astaire fans may quibble), and he insisted too - on doing his own choreography, reminiscent of his moves in An American in Paris, quite consciously. He's not a major character here, but his appearance amounted to a blessing, even an anointment, and we did hear him speak French when Demy relented and allowed us to hear his unmistakable voice. So that was Hollywood - but how many of their musicals included a local murderer the locals discuss, complete with surprise reveal of the culprit? There was nothing exactly like Demy's musicals, that was for sure.
For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film, Rochefort held a celebration to commemorate its claim to fame, and Deneuve was the guest of honour. A subsequent documentary on the subject, Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans was directed by Demy's widow, Agnès Varda, herself a great filmmaker and always keen to champion her husband's work, rightly so. She had been there for the original shoot and captured much behind the scenes footage: it was fascinating to see Deneuve interact with Dorléac and hear them discuss their relationship, also to see them play the trumpet like Kay Kendall in Genevieve as they rehearsed.
A film like Les Demoiselles de Rochefort was a major one for France at the time, and Rochefort's denizens were plucked from obscurity to essay the roles of extras; Varda took special care to include plenty of them, all these years later, and their memories of the making, basically the only reason anyone's ever heard of the town. Hundreds of people turned out for both the 1966 summer creation, and the 1992 event, so despite Deneuve being interviewed, and the thrill of stars like Kelly, George Chakiris and Michel Piccoli appearing, Varda's documentary was more a celebration of how cinema can transform the everyday into something magical, as nobody interviewed has anything bad to say about their experiences from back then. If that doesn't encapsulate the power of Demy's musical, then nothing does, aside from the film itself.
[The BFI have released this title (and yes, it is the French version) as a Blu-ray with the following features:
Newly commissioned feature commentary by David Jenkins
A Melody Composed by Chance... (2019, 19 mins): audiovisual essay by Geoff Andrew
Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (1993, 67 mins): Agnès Varda documentary celebration of Demy and his film
The Guardian Interview: Catherine Deneuve (2005, 7 mins): excerpts of the actress in conversation at the NFT
The Guardian Interview: Jacques Demy (1982, audio, 76 mins): the director interviewed on stage following a screening of Une Chambre en ville
The Guardian Interview: Michel Legrand (1991, audio, 71 mins): the great composer discusses is career, recorded at the NFT
The Guardian Lecture: Gene Kelly (1980, audio only, 76 mins): the song-and-dance legend recorded on stage at the NFT discussing his career
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with an easy by Jonathan Rosenbaum, new writing by Selina Robertson and Nicolas Pillai, a biography of Jacques Demy by Jason Wood and full film credits.]