French nouvelle vague auteur Jacques Demy made this dazzling, pop-art musical as a follow-up to his masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Song and dance men Etienne (West Side Story’s George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale) arrive in the pastel paradise, seaside town of Rochefort, and befriend numerous characters searching for love. Musically gifted siblings Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac, her real-life sister) long to find soul-mates and success in Paris, while their mother, café owner Yvonne laments abandoning her long lost love, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli), because of his silly name. Little does she know, kindly Simon resides in Rochefort, while his friend, American musician Andy Miller (Gene Kelly) meets and falls madly in love with Solange, but doesn’t learn her name. Meanwhile, lovelorn sailor-turned painter, Maxence (Jacques Perrin) searches in vain for the girl who matches a portrait of his ideal love. A portrait that looks a lot like Delphine. All these romantic complications eventually resolve themselves amidst jaunty song and dance numbers set to magical music from Michel Legrand.
“We love catchy tunes, silly puns, repartee…” sing Delphine and Solange. All things found in abundance here. Less melancholy and thematically ambitious perhaps than Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort is no less amazing. Soulful rather than saccharine, Jacques Demy achieves a near perfect synthesis of gliding camera, soaring music, and explosions of colour as Deneuve, Dorleac, Chakiris and Kelly barnstorm across the screen. Legrand’s achingly lovely songs drive the plot forward, revealing information and characters’ inner thoughts. Everyone enjoys their moment in the spotlight, with charming turns from Jacques Perrin and Michel Piccoli, although the star attractions are that doe-eyed, dynamic duo, Deneuve and Dorléac. Deneuve is a blonde dream as always, while special mention goes to the equally talented Dorléac, who died tragically young in a car crash. There is something about the way she stares into the camera, as though she peers into your soul. The girls deliver trademark, nouvelle vague in-jokes (“It’s Jules and Jim!” “Maybe you’d prefer Michel Legrand!”) and model eye-catching costumes. As ever with Demy, beauty in all its forms adorns the screen. Its crescendo being when each character’s individual melodies merge together to create a glorious moment.
Surprisingly, many critics feel Gene Kelly (more active as a director than actor at this point in his career) merely coasts through his performance here. True he’s less combustible than in say, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but that movie star charisma shines brightly nonetheless. His first appearance onscreen is delightful moment. One of those movies that makes the Sixties seem a heavenly era, The Young Girls of Rochefort is two hours of pure joy.