Thoughts On: The Young Girls Of Rochefort - The Art-Musical


The Young Girls Of Rochefort - The Art-Musical

Thoughts On: The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1967)

A fair comes to a town whose heart seems to be aching.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a French musical made by Jacques Demy. Demy is known as one of the faces of the French New Wave, however, what puts him and his films into this movement is not as clear as what, for example, places Godard and his films in the New Wave. Demy's most famous films made during the New Wave were his musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and this, The Young Girls of Rochefort. It is not necessarily because he made musicals that Demy is not easily associated with a New Wave aesthetic - Godard also made a musical, A Woman Is A Woman. Alas, Godard's musical was very different. And herein lies the aesthetic distinction of the New Wave artists. Godard, Rivette and Truffaut are considered to form the Right Bank to Demy and Varda's Left Bank of the French New Wave. The Right Bank artists were more famous, were the writers for Cahiers du Cinéma. They seemed to have existed in a far more strict artistic space, and this translate into their films. Godard especially demonstrates a rather relentless and unforgiving assassination of cinematic rules in search of new language. Demy, on the other hand, only plays with the established rules of cinema, for example, taking on the Hollywood musical and manipulating it to his own tastes. Where Godard then creates an experimental musical of sorts within A Woman Is A Woman, Demy creates an art-musical in The Young Girls of Rochefort. The difference should be implicit.

What is most interesting about Demy's musicals is their tone. One sees how much this differs from the American musical within The Young Girls of Rochefort during sequences featuring Gene Kelly. Though he fits into the narrative satisfactorily, he has a very clearly loud and emphatic style; his hands splayed, elbows still, body posture open, his facial expressions indicating that he belts out emotion. Compare this to Deneuve and co's subtle and very understated jazz-infused style of song and dance, and there emerges the key difference between Demy's and the classical Hollywood musical.

There are draw-backs and successes of Demy's style. By intentionally giving his film an intellectual tone by referring great art and artists, using jazz, and casually constructing characters with wit and--for lack of a better term--your stereotypical New Wave Frenchness, Demy transforms the nature of his melodrama and romanticism. In short, he asks us to take it seriously, to ponder upon it instead of be pulled into it - the reverse being the case in classical Hollywood musicals. In seeing an array of characters meander about town and sing about their life styles, their yearning and their passions, we aren't really allowed to step into characters, but are asked to understand the atmosphere in which they exist. It is through this that we come to understand that Demy wants to depict a place where everyone yearns love, where everyone is so close to it, has lost it, and desires more from life; rather literally, everyone is singing the same tune. It is with romantic melodrama that Demy makes this point, seemingly insisting that love is one of the crucial, foundational wants infused into a society. Let us not extrapolate too far, however.

The downfall of the art-musical comes with the feeling of distance, furthermore, a feeling of slight pretence. American musicals often use spectacle to emphasise emotion and character. Demy's art-musical uses spectacle as an artistic technique it seems. Songs tied to character are then poetic soliloquies of sorts, operatic in nature. Dances do nothing but allow for the choreographers and, sometimes, the camera, to shine. Musical numbers, as we have discussed before, can do more than this. Personally, I find the best musical numbers to be those that use spectacle whilst deepening our understanding of tone or character, those that go inside a moment and reveal something new, that profoundly yet subtly transform the narrative diegesis. Demy's numbers, especially those that allow characters to express themselves, are transformative. However, they feel merely expositional for the lack of emotion and affection that exudes from then. Again, the issue here comes down to distance. We are not allowed to access the heart and emotions of characters, they sing and dance, yet their chests remain closed. Hence, a sense of pretence arises in my view - which left this only an ok film to me.

If anyone is interested in seeing this film, I would warn that it may entirely change the way in which you see La La Land. I was told before seeing Chazelle's musical that it was inspired by Demy's style, but had only seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at that point. Having seen The Young Girls of Rochefort, Chazelle seems to have, in one sense, bastardised Demy's style, yet in another, improved it. Chazelle tries to integrate character and meaning into his narrative to a greater degree than Demy - within La La Land the Hollywood music conflicts against the art-musical. Alas, La La Land has depreciated in my view since I first saw it. Furthermore, I don't think it had a particularly strong base in the cinema of Demy. Alas, these are just my thoughts. Have you seen the musicals we have talked about today? What are your thoughts?

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