The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

Donkey Skin (1970)

donkeyskin1Donkey Skin takes the unique world of Jacques Demy and steps it up a couple of notches. The story is based off a fairy tale and brims with all the necessary trappings accented by the French director’s own flourishes.

Once again the music is supplied by Michel Legrand and the songs are a mix of playfully fun and sometimes solemn songs that help dictate the path the story takes. As far as the tale itself goes, it revolves around a beautiful princess who sends herself into a forced exile wearing a donkey skin. It all sounds rather odd, but she is given the idea from her fairy godmother, in order to keep her father from marrying the princess.

The world is a fanciful array of gaudy fake interiors, blue people, red horses, a treasure-dropping donkey, oddly-masked creatures, a talking parrot, princesses, princes, and some rather alarming potential incest. This is no Disney endeavor by any means and its bright colors often call to mind Hippy culture.

donkeyskin2Into this land, the princess flees covered in her donkey skin and takes on the lowly role of a scullery maid where she is belittled and looked down upon. However, a glum young prince happens upon her in all her beauty and wants nothing more than to marry her. In fact, he plays sick just so he can be with his gorgeous vision. Instead of Cinderella’s slipper, this story deals with a ring which is only to fit the finger of his true love. A whole to do is made out of it with people coming from far and wide. However, the prince already knows who he wishes to wear it, after all, it came in a cake that Donkey Skin baked for him.

In the end, this fairy tale receives the happy denouement that is expected with plenty of riches and love for all. The film used simple but nonetheless mesmerizing special effects that add a touch of magic to this tale. It also gets bookended by some obligatory narration concluding an enchanting fairy story fit for children, mothers, grandmas and anyone else who is willing to partake. Although not as memorable as his earlier musicals, it seems that Donkey Skin sees Jacques Demy at his fully realized creative powers in a way that is uniquely his and fits with many of the trademarks he developed earlier. Furthermore, Catherine Deneuve proved that she is beautiful even wearing a donkey skin hoodie. It’s hard to say no to a movie with her in it, no matter the topic.

3.5/5 Stars

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

umbrellas1 It is hard to remember a time when I was so devastatingly sad due to a film, and it does not leave a deep hurt but a more wistful despondency that is far more real. However, that’s enough misery for the time being. Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an exquisitely young Catherine Deneuve, this cinematic opera is a moving musical piece that looks to be conventional and turns out to be quite the opposite. 

The story begins in November of 1957 with a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) who is deeply in love with the beautiful 16-year-old Genevieve (Deneuve). Guy cares a great deal for his godmother Elise who has a caregiver to look after her. Genevieve helps out her mother in running a small umbrellas shop in Cherbourg which allows them to scrape by. They must sell some family heirlooms to a kindly jeweler who is smitten with Genevieve. However, Genevieve and Guy have plans of marriage until Guy learns suddenly that he has been drafted for the war in Algeria. They spend their last hours together, and she vows to wait for his return. 

umbrellas7In the following months, it becomes evident that Genevieve is pregnant, but her mother tells her that Guy has probably forgotten her already. The jeweler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), professes his love for Genevieve and agrees to adopt her unborn child. Thus, partially on the urging of her mother Genevieve accepts his proposal and they are soon married leaving Cherbourg for good. 

Finally, Guy returns from the war and things have changed. He now has a limp and is fed up with his old work at the garage. Furthermore, the Umbrellas shop is sold and Genevieve is wed and gone. Adding insult to injury his godmother soon passes away. With no one else to turn to, he looks to the caretaker Madeleine, and he realizes her love for him. They get married and he turns his life around with her help. 

The years pass, and now during Christmas of 1963, a car pulls into Guy’s new gas station. After many years, the two former lovers come face to face once more. Now they have marriages and children, and their interactions are painfully aloof. They have moved on with their lives and they have moved on from their passionate romance. 

umbrellas13True, their lives have become sensible, but in this opera that Demy has constructed, this conclusion is sad and bittersweet. And yet if this were the only painful moment that would be one thing, but there are so many that touch the heart and move the viewer. When Guy goes off to the army and takes off on the train we can feel the great weight of anguish. More often than not, you can read the sadness on the face of these characters which complement the beautiful ballads they utter. In other words, it’s one thing to recount the plot and quite another to watch the events unfold.

I have to say that I had never seen a film that played out entirely through song, and even in the opening sequence, Demy consciously melds the diverse forms of film and opera. Umbrellas has the vibrancy and color of movies and takes the dramatic story line and songs of opera, to create a unique piece of musical artistry complete with acts and all. Its colors are bright and vibrant–utterly distinct in their composition. Everything from the bikes to the umbrellas and even back alleyways are beautiful. Although there are many magnificent melodies, rather surprisingly there is not one specific song that stands out (Well, maybe the theme), but instead, it plays rather like one continuous song with different sections and overtures that complement while not overshadowing each other.

umbrellas4Demy’s earlier film Lola also gives an interesting insight into the character of Roland Cassard who once again becomes acquainted with a mother and her daughter in a shop. This time around he has accomplished his dream of traveling the world as a diamond merchant, however, Lola is still heavy on his heart. Another thing that is remarkable about the film is the weather which in many ways plays as another character. The varying degrees of rain and snow dictate the mood and shift with the changing seasons. There’s no doubt that Jacques Demy and his collaborator Michel Legrand created something special here that elevates the musical to a heartfelt tragedy of romance. That’s something many men would not be brave enough to do. 


4.5/5 Stars

Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

f7d3a-singin_rain I always seem to get goosebumps during Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, because each time I see and hear it, there is still a new magic to it every time. You see when I was young, before I knew all the classics, first and foremost, I knew this gem of a film. It is such a wonderful buildup to that moment with such personal favorites as “Make em’ Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Then you have the always popular “Good Morning” with not only Kelly but Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds performing. Great stuff! There’s tireless choreography that goes into many of those sequences but it comes off so effortlessly and it brings us into the moment. There those wonderful, brief instances when you lose yourself in the music, the magic, and so on.

As the story goes, the three friends save the failing “Dueling Cavalier” by losing the simple “talkie” gimmick and making it a musical by dubbing the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Cathy (Reynolds) no longer is a bit player, and she gains the acknowledgment that she deserves. Then Don Lockwood (Kelly) gets the girl who burst out of a cake. Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) is along for the ride staying with Don through thick and through thin, even calling him a cab when necessary. He’s a true friend in a million.

Although Kelly had a career with other high points (arguably never as high as this one), I am always slightly saddened that O’Connor and Reynolds never reached another apex like this in their subsequent careers. But they were both so great here, we must simply cherish this film for what it is.

Even to this day, the film holds up, and that is a tribute to the writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green highlighting the infant Hollywood and the advent of talkies. In the same breath, it’s both a satire of the movie star culture and still a love letter to that same cottage industry. The only film with a similar dissection of Hollywood’s Golden Age is another 50s classic in Sunset Boulevard. The big difference is that Wilder’s film is chock full of drama and darkness. Singin’ in the Rain will always and forever be a light, fun musical with a lot of laughs.  It is constantly quotable whether it is “dignity, always dignity” or “I CAN’T stand it!”

Jean Hagen is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she is indeed very funny with the most annoying voice in the history of cinema (She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. Triple threat). You also have other fine performers like Millard Mitchell as studio head R.F., and then appearances by Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno who made a name for themselves as dancers in the ensuing years. And is it just me or does Donald O’Connor remind others of Danny Kaye? He not only cracks the jokes, but he is a wonderful all-around performer. Although O’Connor was undoubtedly a better dancer.

All in all, this is a timeless classic and it will undoubtedly keep that title for as long as people watch movies. Now I hope it starts pouring buckets of rain so I can go outside and stomp around in the puddles. I will let you know if I come down with pneumonia. But until that happens I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I entreat you to do the same.

5/5 Stars