Les Demoiselles de Rochefort Review
Having made a little piece of cinematic perfection with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Jacques Demy took the foolhardy route of following it with more of the same, only on a much grander scale. If Umbrellas was operetta then Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is full-blown musical: ’scope photography, Hollywood homage and location shooting. As one of the early numbers puts it this may just be a film about “catchy tunes, silly puns and repartee” yet Les Demoiselles refuses to be small-scale. Its cast list alone – and I’m mentioning only key players here – finds room for sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francois Dorleac (their only screen appearance together, though Polanski had effectively twinned them earlier courtesy of their respective female leads in Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac), Max Ophuls favourite Danielle Darrieux, Gene Kelly in his final musical appearance (barring hosting gigs on the That’s Entertainment! compilation docs), a pair of West Side Story veterans and Michel Piccoli here ticking off yet another auteur appearance (the sixties alone seeing collaborations with Bava, Bunuel, Costa-Gavras, Godard, Hitchcock, Melville, Resnais and Demy’s wife Agnes Varda!). Similarly the musical nods and winks shoot off in all directions: West Side Story inevitably, and of course The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but also Love Me Tonight, Gentleman Prefer Blondes and a handful of MGM masterpieces.
Yet for all this surface density Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is very simple. Essentially it’s a “true love waits” tale beset by awkward complications and coincidences in a manner that’s almost Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, et al. However, this mixture of the large- and small-scale, the complex and the remarkably simple doesn’t really do the film any favours. The one effectively cancels out the other, or swamps it rather. Whereas Umbrellas found the perfect match between style and content – and was all the more touching for it - Les Demoiselles’ emotional element figures only minutely. With too many characters to keep tags on there’s little chance of us caring for any, especially when happy endings are a given in such a flimsy set-up.
Not that Demy has completely failed. Rather, as with his next movie, 1968’s LA excursion Model Shop, it is ripe for cult pickings. Indeed, in his 2000 article for the Chicago Reader (reproduced in the accompanying booklet) Jonathan Rosenbaum admits his love for Les Demoiselles - it’s his favourite musical – and, just as importantly, its flaws. I’ll admit that I find it difficult to overlook what I see as a fairly major problem. But then I’m also more than willing to acknowledge just how dazzling this film can be. The scene in which Deneuve walks/dances down the street in a single take to accompaniment of choreographed extras is a pure delight. Likewise Michel Legrand’s wonderful score – though I find it far more attractive when the voices disappear and the orchestra kicks into overload. Plus there’s Gene Kelly, nothing less than a lifeforce, and a true reminder as to how great cinema can be. Some quarters have attacked the French dubbing, but the voice – both sung and spoken – is a fair match of his own and nowhere near the distraction it could have been. And interestingly, the sheer wealth of references never proves detrimental in a “that was done better in such-and-such” fashion (Deneuve and Dorleac look fantastic dressed up as Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe!) for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort always remains Demy’s own. It may never reach the heights of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Lola for that matter, but it nevertheless possesses a certain messy charm and contains more than enough reasons to ensure a single viewing at the very least, even if they don’t hang together quite so well as they should.
The BFI’s double-disc handling of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is not dissimilar to Optimum’s Region 2 handling of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years previous. Disc one houses the movie, whilst the second disc plays host to the special features, though this is arguably the superior offering. The film itself is in mostly excellent condition. Using Agnes Varda’s 1996 restoration we get Les Demoiselles in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced and with optional English subs. The colour scheme (all those pastels) is impressively handled and whilst the print does show some signs of age there’s never anything to provide too much of a distraction. Admittedly the image could be a little sharper but on the whole there are few complaints. The soundtrack comes in uncompressed PCM stereo and is excellent throughout. Crisp, clear and handling both dialogue and score with equal competence – in a word, superb.
The key additional feature is Varda’s 1993 retrospective documentary Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans. As with her L’Univers de Jacques Demy (present on the Umbrellas special edition) this is a feature-length effort and, to my mind, the better of the two. The singular focus as opposed to a career-wide investigation allows for a huge amount of detail, though it’s the archive footage that proves most arresting. Alongside contemporary interviews with surviving cast and crew members and modern day footage of Rochefort, these black and white and 16mm images are utterly fascinating. Witness Demy dancing and singing along to one of the musical numbers and you’ll see a director fully at ease and thoroughly enjoying the filmmaking process. (The documentary comes in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with optional English subtitles.)
Additionally the second disc also finds room for a snippet from Catherine Deneuve’s 2005 Guardian Interview at the NFT in which she discusses Demy, Les Demoiselles and Umbrellas, though sadly no thoughts on their later collaborations Donkey Skin and A Slightly Pregnant Man. Also present is a 1980 audio interview with Gene Kelly. More wide-ranging than the Deneuve piece this sees Kelly talking us through the key movies and periods of his career to the accompaniment of various stills. (There are no subtitles, hard of hearing or otherwise, available for the two interviews.)
Rounding off the package we also get the now obligatory BFI booklet collecting articles, biographies, credits and various production stills over its 22 pages.