Jacques Demy may not be as widely known as his French New Wave contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but he had a seismic effect on cinema in his own way. He mainly made musicals and fairy tales until his death from AIDS in 1990. Recent Hollywood films such as La La Land and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have worn the influence of Demy on their sleeves. Tarantino’s film, however was more influenced by Demy’s one attempt at a “New Hollywood” film, Model Shop, with its seamlessly aimless navigation around the Los Angeles of 1969.
This new BFI release was, until recent interest in Model Shop, his second-best-known film after the classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg… Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Both films are musicals set in seaside towns in France, and both star Catherine Deneuve, who Demy essentially made a star of with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Demy had a little more money with Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and even waited a couple years to make the film so he could get one of his heroes, Gene Kelly, to co-star.
Demy wasn’t as interested in plot as in creating a “feeling of euphoria,” and that’s a fair assessment. It’s about the typical romantic hang-ups of these two twin sisters, one played by Deneuve and the other by Françoise Dorléac (who died tragically soon after the film), and what they get up too in this small town. It’s gorgeously photographed in Eastmancolor, not Technicolor, and the songs from Michel Legrand are great. The costumes are incredibly simple but effective: it’s about the colours that are picked, pinks and yellows in particular stand out.
Gene Kelly is wonderful, as you would expect, and has a fantastic entrance in the film. It’s one of his last “real” movies as an actor. Kelly never was quite able to make the jump from musical to more dramatic roles, sadly, although he clearly had it in him. His last film would end up being Xanadu, but probably the less said about that the better. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort may not quite be up to the dizzying heights of Gene Kelly’s very best musicals, but he obviously saw a kindred spirit in Demy, hence why he took the role.
It’s as good of a starting point to investigate Jacques Demy’s work as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and it’s just pure cinematic pleasure for its entire two-hour running time. It’s a fascinating mixture of both artifice and the use of locations, which is an incredibly unique approach to filmmaking. BFI released the film on DVD, and has finally upgraded the film and reached into the audio archive to get long-form audio interviews with Demy, Kelly and Legrand, and a much shorter audio interview with Deneuve. Little White Lies’ David Jenkins supplies an audio commentary, and Demy’s wife Agnès Varda’s hour-long documentary on the film, Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans, is also included. The disc also includes an audiovisual essay, and the booklet is stacked with various essays.