“This town is crawling with soldiers, sadists and painters”

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)

This film is the NFT’s current reprint du jour and I’d never seen it before, although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve previously seen of Jacques Demy. It was the follow-up to his biggest hit Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and its reputation is essentially Parapluies-only-not-as-good. I can see what people mean but I’m not sure it’s altogether fair as the two have different objectives.

With Parapluies, the swelling music elevates a fairly mundane story (of first love dissolving in disappointment and rancour) to the stuff of tragedy. Demoiselles is a great deal more expensive, with more stars, and even better songs. Demy plays puppeteer with a cast of would-be lovers, finally pairing them all off in a happy ending, but self-consciously (and affectionately) sending up the sort of story that he’s telling. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its countless imitators.

As you watch the film, it feels barely relevant that the script is far from rigorous, because the content is in the visuals and the music. It’s a beautiful, breezy summer and the sunshine really brings out the pastel colours of both this little seaside town and the gorgeous costumes. Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac’s twins are usually seen in matching outfits, one in yellow and one in pink. Gene Kelly’s pink polo shirt and lilac blazer, however, may over-egg the pudding a little.

Michel Legrand’s vivacious, jazzed-up soundtrack really steals the show. I have been humming the song which introduces the twins, ‘Nous sommes deux soeurs jumettes’, constantly in the 36 hours since I left the cinema. It’s one of those killer tunes that really puts a smile on your face (and it rhymes ‘érudites’ with ‘frites’).

But although this film is much lighter than Parapluies, the music still pulls off the feat of being simultaneously feelgood and heartbreaking. Even when it’s at its most boisterous and rousing, it’s tinged with real melancholy. The effect is that as we watch the characters drift in and out their amours, we sense that love is something which will inflict great pain and is nevertheless to be pursued at all costs. You swoon as you are punched in the stomach. A musician could probably explain why this is, I imagine it’s something to do with minor chords.

The opening credits rather advertise the artificiality of what we are about to see. A convoy of lorries and workers in white overalls are moving through grim-looking surroundings on the edge of town. Their lorries arrive on a platform at the edge of a river, and an enormous crane mechanism lifts the platform and carries it across. On the platform a group of youngsters perform a slow-motion, synchronised dance number. A birds’ eye view shot sees the crane lift them over the brown water.

As they enter town a convoy of soldiers are leaving on the same road. A panoramic view of the town square is filled with more dancing and high-kicks as the girls pair off with sailors. We have been planted into Demy World; and his films do indeed feel like a theme park. Not only are they musicals, but characters from one will reappear in another. Over dinner, a family discuss characters from Parapluies. We hear snatches of dialogue from passers-by.

A fair is coming to town and people are hanging up gaily coloured bunting. The camera surveys them, then enters an upper-storey window where Deneuve and Dorléac are concluding a ballet class for young girls. Then we get that fabulous song, in which the sisters express their longing to quit the small town for the bright lights of Paris.

In this day and age, one forgets how luminous Deneuve was in the mid-60s. Demy usually casts her as an ordinary girl with extraordinary beauty. Personally I prefer her in more twisted roles (Tristana, Replusion) but it’s each to their own. She and her real-life sister Dorléac have a yin-yang quality; the blonde and the brunette, the dancer and the pianist/composer. Dorléac’s beauty is less immediately striking (whose wouldn’t be?) and her character compensates by being cerebral where Deneuve is flighty. She died in a car crash shortly after filming finished.

The twins’ mother Yvonne is serving up the chips and beers in her café; a piece of prime real estate in the town square, a unit with glass walls and gold pillars. Josette the waitress helps out; Yvonne’s father sits in the corner and makes model aeroplanes, occasionally breaking off to bark that he needs more glue. We meet Etienne and Bill, who are running one of the fair stalls, and Maxence the sailor (a peroxide blonde Jacques Perrin), who describes himself as a ‘painter/poet’ and has been looking for his ‘feminine ideal’. When he enters the regulars ask, “Have you found her yet?”

As passers-by somersault along the streets, Deneuve interacts with them on the way to see her on-off boyfriend Guillaume, who runs an art gallery. He’s creating a Pollock-esuqe work by shooting at bags of paint dangling in front of a blank canvas. He shows her a portrait, a little like blue-period Picasso, which a local ‘painter-poet’ has submitted. It’s called ‘Feminine Ideal’ and it’s a perfect likeness of Deneuve. She is touched by it, he is disdainful. They quarrel and break up. Back at the café, the boys from the fair give us a swaggering song-and-dance number about how they love the freedom of life on the road.

The next location is the music shop of Simon Dame (played by a suede-suited Michel Piccoli as a gentle, bashful chap). It’s a celestial white with neo-classical pillars and instruments hanging from the ceiling. He sells some sheet music to a group of nuns before Dorléac pays a visit. Could M. Dame perhaps put in a good word when his friend, the famous American composer Andy Miller, arrives in Paris for his forthcoming concert? She plays him some of her latest concerto; strings and cymbals join in. It’s a dramatic, Romantic piece which moves Dame to confess that he has moved to Rochefort because he met the love of his life here. She ran off to Mexico with another man and he wants to live alone amongst his memories.

Dorléac is collecting her little brother Boubou from school. He throws a tantrum and her belongings are scattered to the floor. A handsome stranger (the beaming Gene Kelly) rushes to help her and as their eyes meet, her concerto is reprised. It’s the cheesiest thing you’ve ever seen and most of the audience roared with laughter. Dorléac is (understandably) embarrassed and rushes away, leaving Gene Kelly to express joy at his coup de foudre via the medium of dance. Though he has a mere bit part, Kelly’s improvised routines properly show up the other dancers. He rolls up her score and hits boys on the head with it, then spirals off down the road, lifting a Nureyevish leg over the water hydrants.

Etienne and Bill are in trouble; their dancers/on-off girlfriends are quitting the stall on the eve of the fair to run off with two sailors. They could never love the boys because they don’t have blue eyes (there is much discussion of the importance of blue eyes in this film). Their carefree song is reprised, this time delivered in unsmiling and bitter fashion.

Maxence chats to an old man called Dutrouz; he hates the military and foresees trouble (“it’s like ’39”). In Parapluies, Algeria hangs over everyone’s lives and is the catalyst that separates the lovers- here there are soldiers about, and commented on, but their purpose is much more vague and accepted. No trace of ’68 in the air as there was in Godard’s films of the time. Yvonne sings of her lost love; she pretended she was moving to Mexico, and he left town for good. The reason? She couldn’t bear to have the silly name Madame Dame. Amusingly, Boubou is scolded for trying to dance on the tables.

The portrait of Deneuve fades into her face as Etienne and Bill pay a visit to the twins, who greet them sardonically as “Jules et Jim”. The girls are haughty but admit the boys, who ask if they might replace their dancers by performing a song on their stall. Needless to say, a torch song about virile Hamburg sailors does not go down well. In another song, they ask what sort of music the boys are looking for? Mozart, Stravinsky, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong or Michel Legrand? (Cheeky!).

Things take an oddly Brechtian turn at the café as Yvonne reads the newspaper and sings a jaunty tune about an axe murderer who chopped up a woman and left her remains in a basket. Upbeat, strident jazz accompanies the pompiers‘ efforts to disperse the crowds and wash the bloodstains from the pavement. Later on, we learn that the killer was Dutrouz and the cast react with glib amusement. This segment jars a little and looks forward to the full-on weirdness of Peau d’Ane (my favourite Demy film).

The plot teases the lovers a little- Dorléac meets Maxence and Deneuve meets Gene Kelly. She’s been buying spectacular costumes for the fair (red sequinned dresses and elbow-length gloves), which characteristically, Dorleac worries “will make us look like whores”. Kelly visits Piccoli and tells him about his recent love-at-first-sight experience.

On the day of the fair the town square is packed. There are ballerinas and basketball players on the diverse stages. The crowd scenes are well handled, the camera moving from stage to stage and picking out things and people in the crowd on its way. The boys are in white denim and trying to flog motorbikes. Indeed, a number of the stalls are sponsored by well-known corporates, bringing to mind Parapluies’ climax at a Shell station. Is Demy saying something about the early stages of globalisation, or were these companies paying for the film to be made? Or a bit of both? 

The sisters’ song does, of course, go down a bomb. Afterwards, they are backstage with the boys and draw a curtain across to undress. The boys pounce upon this moment of vulnerability to make a hesitant declaration; we love you and we want to sleep with you. Drearily reminiscent of adolescent courtship. The sisters brush them off with a song about how useless men are, only ever wanting transient flings. Where is Mr. Right? The boys wander out to dance across an empty square, littered with balloons and streamers. They look a bit Saturday Night Fever in the white denim and black t-shirts.

The next morning comes the finale. The boys are giving the twins a lift to Paris. Yvonne meets Piccoli and Dorléac meets Andy Miller. Deneuve turns up to mind the café, in which Maxence has left his bag. Grandad calls her out the back and they miss each other by seconds. Josette wants to see Paris and takes Dorléac’s vacant place in the lorry. Guillaume tells Deneuve her painter has gone to Paris and she is determined to find him. Just as we think they’ll have to wait for a sequel, the final shot is of Maxence trying to hitch a ride on the road out of town. The lads stop their lorry to let him on. FIN.

The best way I can describe Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is as a great big gloopy dessert of a film, filled with fresh cream and runny caramel and chocolate sauce. You wouldn’t want it every night, but I savoured it and as the film hurtled to its conclusion I was genuinely crestfallen to realise it was ending, and that I was going to be banished into a monochrome world where there are no happy endings and nobody sings or tapdances down the street to the accompaniment of a fantastic jazz score.

The run at the NFT will continue til the 27th of August; I strongly recommend paying a visit and I think it would be a perfect film for one of those Dates you sometimes hear the Young People talking about.


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August 2009
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