There’s a shot very early on in The Young Girls of Rochefort, Jacques Demy’s follow up to his trend-setting pop opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that serves as a sort of visual mission statement. Fresh-faced Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale) are arriving in town with their traveling circus, a journey that requires the entire troupe to drive onto a large suspended platform. As the group slowly backs their way into a musical number, the platform ferries them across the channel to the town square. Their subtle dance moves are regarded by a camera with an impossibly cool and level eye until, somewhat suddenly, the perspective shoots to the heavens, and their impromptu number is observed from far above from where the gliding platform is suspended. As the brazen weightlessness of this POV shift indicates, The Young Girls of Rochefort is the ultimate demonstration of Demy’s ability to leap from mundanity into effervescent flights of fancy.
From the get-go, the film is forthright about its intentions to build from the artistic successes of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Functionally and philosophically, The Young Girls of Rochefort is preoccupied with couplings and doubling. The stars of the show are real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac (who tragically died months after the film’s release), playing twin sisters who were born under the sign of Gemini and who, as they insist in their introductory song “Chanson des Jumelles,” both love “catchy tunes, silly puns, and repartee.” They work in tandem to teach music and dance to the seaside town’s children, but their hearts belong to a world more cultured than their provincial existence. And to judge by the glimpses of nearly off-screen musical numbers the camera catches other townspeople enacting, they don’t appear to be alone in their desire.
Revolving around their awfully photogenic discontent is an entire cast of characters for whom dreams and reality are, as they are in real life, discrete concepts, though Demy’s worldview consistently narrows the gap. The twins’ mother, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), runs a French fry stand, as she has her whole life in order to raise her children as a single mother, though her sanguine hospitality is a reward to both herself and all around her. Maxence (Jacques Perrin) is a sailor by trade but a romantic idealist by nature, carrying the torch for the woman of his dreams. Etienne and Bill enjoy the bohemian existence, but the transitory nature of their trade ultimately winds up costing them their dancing partners-cum-girlfriends.
Nowhere does the ultimate negligibility between harsh experiences and the cinematic transcendence thereof, prime Demy territory, reveal itself more outlandishly than the revelation of one peripheral character’s violent double life. (Here I yield to fellow critic Keith Uhlich: “Certainly the cheeriest movie ever made featuring an axe murder.”) With the brio of a Shakespearean comedy, The Young Girls of Rochefort carouses onward with a breezy confidence matched by its open-air production design, a surfeit of sunny outdoor sequences repeatedly returning to the glass-walled transparence of Yvonne’s town-square fry stand. It seems literally impossible that in a town of this size, characters fated to unite would be unswervingly dancing past each other, but then again, what are movies but affirmations of the impossible?
A break-away release from Criterion's earlier boxed set of Jacques Demy films, The Young Girls of Rochefort, the good news is that that 2014 release's sparkling 2K restoration carries over here. And it holds up. The confectionary colors would put Willy Wonka to shame—the color grading was personally supervised by filmmaker Agnès Varda, Demy's widow—and the image is both crisp and cinematic. The contrast is vibrant without being ostentatious (this isn't a showroom disc, nor is it trying to be). The 5.1 surround remix is full, forthright, and central, not bending over backward to plop you into the middle of a studio orchestra or a town square terrarium. It's about as good as you'd expect while remaining essentially faithful to the original audio mix.
As with the transfer, the extras here are ported directly over from Criterion's 2014 release The Essential Jacques Demy release, with the exception that critic Jonathon Rosenbaum's essay is here presented as a standalone instead of incorporated into a larger booklet. Fans of Michel Legrand get a roughly 10-minute 1966 interview conducted alongside Demy, wherein the two discuss The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort in tandem. It's very French. Also, one portion from documentarian Andre Delvaux's six-part making-of TV series, showcasing footage of the sets, the choreography, and more. It's also very French. The centerpiece supplemental feature, though, is Varda's quarter-century anniversary documentary The Young Girls Turn 25, which brings Catherine Deneuve back to the seaside town to relive the production. It's très Français. And finally there's a half-hour present-day conversation with Jacqueline Moreau, whose husband, Bernard Evein, served as production designer on the film. The interview was produced by Criterion in the Criterion style. It's...in French.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg captured a moment in pop-cultural time and continues to captivate, but it's Jacques Demy's subsequent The Young Girls of Rochefort that truly elevates the banal vicissitudes of lives spent dreaming.