THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, JACQUES DEMY, 1967
Recently with a group of film buffs, we’ve had some conversations about Blind Spots. These are the films, genres, directors, themes, or whatever attributes that just rub you the wrong way and turn you off from a film. My blind spot are many of the American musicals from Classical Hollywood. I’ve tried and just cannot get into them. Part of it is the overdose of style over substance, and I think they often spend too much time and space distracting from what makes films good (plot, character, conflict). For instance, why spend 5-minutes on a song saying one thing about a character when you can reveal plenty more with actions against other characters?
Basically I like musicals where a character is a musician and that says something about him (Once), or where the art of the musical is a major part of the narrative (All That Jazz), or pretty much anything directed by Ernst Lubitsch. There are other conventional musicals I like, such as Singing in the Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, and some I hate, like An American In Paris and My Fair Lady. I know, it’s not too defensible and I realize that. Despite my personal tastes, I understand that the American musical was a major institution, created by enormously talented people, and they deserve their place in the lists of the best of American film.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an exception to this Blind Spot because it is revolutionary, and breaks from the formulas that I dislike. The music actually adds to the characters, all of whom are deeply drawn and identifiable.
I was wary of The Young Girls of Rochefort because I knew this was more in the style of the musicals that rub me the wrong way, especially An American in Paris. Fortunately I found that, while Rochefort is nowhere close to as groundbreaking as Umbrellas, there was enough there to make me appreciate the film. The characters were not as deep and their encounters more fleeting, but the film is made exceptionally well and manages to transcend what is not my favorite formula.
There are a number of characters with various objects of affection that dance around each other (literally and figuratively), with their perfect matches seemingly just barely outside of the picture. First, there are the carnies, who are basically interested in a good time and act more as distractions to the real romantic interests. There is the sailor who has devised his ‘feminine ideal’ and even painted her, which coincidentally looks like Catherine Deneuve’s demoiselle character. Meanwhile, the twin sister, played by Francois Dorleac (who tragically died the year this was released) encounters and brushes off Gene Kelly, who is a fit for her artistically and creatively, since they are both musicians. Finally, there is a shopkeeper with the unfortunate last name of Dame, who used to be involved with the demoiselle’s mother, who operates a frites stand and has no idea that he is even nearby.
The Umbrellas of Cherboug managed to have a deep message and a light presentation, and I thought that might be the way that Rochefort would go as well. Since the sailor and the demoiselle kept barely missing each other, was Demy saying that the feminine ideal is unobtainable? Even to the end I wondered what he was saying here.
As we learn in the final scene, the circus that is en route to Paris picks up the sailor as a hitchhiker, so we assume that he will meet his feminine ideal. It isn’t tightly wrapped up, but the message is clear. It is strengthened by the statement by her ex-lover who lies and tells her that this love interest is in Paris, which is “too small for your passion” and that she will find him. So, overall, there isn’t much of a message here. It is more about the journey of finding someone, at least for the demoiselles, or not finding someone for the carnies, who will go from place to place and stay lonely, although they don’t seem bothered by this.
Movie Rating: 7/10
The big one here is Agnes Varda’s The Young Girls Turn 25 documentary, which revisits the town of Rochefort 25 years later. It shows how the city has been revitalized, how the locals remember the project, and how it has become a permanent part of their culture. One local proudly carries around the VHS cassette of the movie everywhere she goes (hopefully upgraded to Blu-Ray by now).
It is a little more than an hour-long, but is a lot different than the standard documentary special feature. This is a Varda film, and rather than just rehashing a lot of tidbits of information from the film shoot (which it does to some respect), it takes a journey. In this case it is much of the crew, stars, and extras all coming together to celebrate the anniversary of the film. Much of it is jubilant, although some is somber. The scenes where they dedicate streets to Jacques Demy and Francois Dorleac were especially touching, the latter of which had Catherine Deneuve breaking a bottle to christen her sister’s street, barely able to hide the emotions of her loss through large sunglasses.
There are other quaint, fly-on-the-wall types of features. There’s another French TV special with Legrand and Demy working out the music of the film and answering some questions. The song was the one that the carnies sing, and it was a treat seeing them work out the timing, the ending, and how it would transition to the next scene.
There were also a couple features surrounding the costume designs and set designs, which were mostly about Rochefort, but also touched on Umbrellas. I enjoyed hearing about how the costume designer collaborated with her husband who was the art director to match clothing. Rochefort wasn’t as flamboyantly colored, but it certainly had a look. They paid a lot of attention to little details, such as coloring 1,000 total shutters on random buildings.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
Some might consider this a lesser Polanski, but it was produced during what I consider his peak. Repulsion, which I consider to be the best Polanski (sorry Chinatown!) came out just the year before, and this pictures uses many of the same crew, including the DP, Gilbert Taylor. It has a similar look and feel to Repulsion. While this film is lighter in tone and has some comedic moments, it still had similar, dark themes as his surrounding films, which would culminate a couple years later in Rosemary’s Baby, another of his best films.
Cul-de-Sac could have been a three-act play using mostly four lead actors, but the location of Lindisfarne / Holy Island was almost like another character. It was the dead end, or cul-de-sac in many ways for all of these characters, whether temporary or permanent. The castle was beautiful, but remote, isolated, and subject to the tidal whims of the sea. It was a change in tide that created the situation that put these characters together, as the car of two gangsters stalls on its way to the island.
The ensemble case consisted of lesser known talent, but they really shined here. Most notable was Donald Pleasence in his effeminate portrayal of the cuckolded husband George. Françoise Dorléac played his restless French wife. I admired her work in Truffault’s The Soft Skin, and it is worth noting that she is the elder sister of Catherine Deneuve, who was absolutely fantastic in Repulsion. In many ways the two characters were similar, albeit Dorléac’s Teresa responds to her isolation with adultery rather than psychosis. Finally, Lionel Stander played Dickie, the gangster who occupies and bullies the quiet lives of this odd pairing. He was perfectly cast as the loudmouth ruffian, which results in terrific character conflict between Pleasence and Dorléac.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing long take. There is a period where the threesome are on the beach, when Dorléac strips naked, runs into the water and leaves the men to argue. As they continue their bickering, a noise is heard from overhead which Dickie thinks is a helicopter coming to rescue him. Instead, to his disappointment, it is a low flying airplane. The actors play off it exceptionally well, and the plane enters the frame with perfect timing. Dorléac right on cue, returns from her swim towards the end of the shot. It was over 8-minutes, and it’s difficult for me to remember a better orchestrated take in Polanski’s long career.
Film Rating: 8/10
The disc has a short, making-of featurette. What I like about the Criterion documentary features compared with traditional releases is that they aren’t self-congratulatory. They are honest about the production, warts and all. First off, I was surprised that they practically bash Stander, who was extremely difficult to work with. You wonder whether they would have been so frank about his behavior if were still living. They also talked about the animosity on the set between Polanski and pretty much everyone else. Finally, they talk about how they put together and timed the praiseworthy long take. If it weren’t for production problems and delays, it may not have happened.
They show a black and white TV interview with Polanski in 1967, just after he had filmed The Fearless Vampire Killers. Sometimes these features don’t work well, but this was a good interview, especially considering this was from when Polanski was young and at the height of his career. He touches on his rough childhood in Poland during the war (he was a Jewish refugee whose mother died), and focuses more on his career, and shows old shorts and previous works of his. It is a nice retrospective and Polanski is always a good interview subject, young or old.
The disc is light on special features and that is okay. Other Polanski releases, including Repulsion have a lot of features. This is a good companion to all of them.
Criterion Rating: 8/10