Photo Credit: The Criterion Collection

By: Andrea Bravo

Jacques Demy’s 1967 film “The Young Girls of Rochefort” opens on a shot of a parade of trucks boarding a transporter bridge — such a structure is a relic of another world now, for only five were built in all of France, and all except the one in Rochefort are gone. Jean-Pierre Berthomé, a close colleague of the director, writes for the Criterion Collection that, “Demy was prevented only by budgetary constraints from painting the bridge of Rochefort pink.” It’s hard not to think of this detail upon rewatching the scene, because even without the pastel color, the wordless dance scene that takes place as the bridge glides weightlessly from one riverbank to the other still has a dreamlike quality to it. The dancers’  yawning and stretching turns seamlessly into more synchronized movements, like they’re just waking up. Or like they’re coming out of a dream, except the world we are transported into is certainly nothing like real life — in the dream world of “Young Girls,” the houses are painted in bright pinks and yellows, and the skies are always blue and sunny, and people dance in the streets and sing in the cafés.  

If “Young Girls” is a dream, then it is a dream that drifts close to the surface of reality, for even here, heartbreak and crushed dreams threaten our characters. However, the impossible dreams of Delphine and Solange (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, real-life sisters playing twins) and lost love of Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, playing the twins’ mother) are discussed with surprisingly cheerful insouciance. The film’s tone can be tragic, but it never surrenders to melodrama or despair, and is balanced out by the quintessentially French rhythms of life in the small town of Rochefort. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes for Criterion that Demy “[savors] the way that casual acquaintances say hello, or interact in cafés, or run errands for one another,” but indeed, even these everyday interactions are tinged with yearning, because “Young Girls” is structured as a love story between three couples — Delphine and the painter-poet Maxence (Jacques Perrin), Solange and Andy (Gene Kelly), and Yvonne and Simon (Michel Piccoli) — that are perfectly placed to run into each other but just keep missing each other. It could almost be called a meet-cute, except that the characters meet all the wrong people, over and over, everyone’s paths crossing except the ones that really, truly should. 

The missed connections start off so subtly that you don’t even realize the enormity of their devastation until it’s too late: it starts from the moment Yvonne asks Maxence to pick up her son from school (where Delphine will be, too) but ends up sending two carnies (George Chakiris and Grover Dale), who run into Delphine instead. Maxence, of course, has just rhapsodized about his painting of his ideal woman, whom he has not met (yet); at the same time, Delphine is at her ex-lover Guillame’s (Jacques Riberolles) art gallery, staring right at that same painting, which magically, inexplicably, is the spitting image of her, but jealousy prompts Guillame to lie to her about its painter’s whereabouts. There is the first clue. The euphoric moment of realization comes a few scenes later, when Delphine launches into a song that perfectly complements Maxence’s own tune, and the audience puts together the musical cues and understands the rightness of these two for each other. 

Each of the six main characters has their own musical theme, scored by Michel Legrand, whose spectacular score suffuses the film with that peculiar cocktail of yearning and exuberance. The film’s real love is music, or even art as a whole — Delphine, a dancer, dreams of joining the Paris Opera Ballet; Solange wishes to become a composer; Maxence is an abstract artist; Yvonne loves poetry; Simon and Andy are musicians. The film is unabashed in its portrayal of art as an expression of joy, and lacks, as Rosenbaum writes in his analysis, “any hint of the American association of art with class.” It’s what brings the characters together, and it’s how Demy hints to us that they are meant for each other in the first place. 

Visually, the film is buoyed by cotton-candy pinks, sunshine yellows, and easy blues, almost a spiritual predecessor to the likes of Wes Anderson’s pink confection of a hotel in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2015) and the pastel interiors of Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” (2020). It is easy to see why Damien Chazelle has cited it as an influence for “La La Land” (2016), as the two films bear a strong resemblance to each other, musically, visually, tonally, and otherwise. Rochefort’s small-town ease, in combination with the curated color palette, makes Demy’s Rochefort feel familiar and at the same time, as far away as the moon. 

The dance numbers, too, smudge the line between memory and dream, song and spoken word, real and imagined. For example, a sequence of Delphine walking down the street as she drifts in and out of the pedestrians’ dances feels particularly like slipping in and out of a dream; rather than using the musical numbers as a straightforward storytelling device, “‘Young Girls’ often daringly places story and musical numbers on the screen simultaneously,” which, as Rosenbaum writes, “produces a somewhat different kind of disquiet or discomfort, along with some exhilaration.” The musical structure of “Young Girls,” then, is better understood as “a continuous state of delirious being rather than a traditional story with musical eruptions,” a dream state which feels uneasy and ephemeral and exhilarating all at once. 

As the couples in “Young Girls” continue to just miss each other, each failed meeting heightens the tension forming between the fairy-tale lightness and the frustration of seeing the characters’ longing for love go unfulfilled. The twins agree to perform in the carnival that has come to town, and their performance is subtly built up as a big romantic climax, the perfect chance for them to finally run into Maxence and Andy, but they don’t. With their wide windows and glass doors, locations like Simon’s music shop and Guillame’s art gallery begin to feel like extensions of the suffocating café in the center of the square — Yvonne, who is stuck working behind the café’s counter for all but two scenes at the end of the film, compares it to being inside an aquarium, staring out as life passes her by. She’s already lost her true love, Simon, ten years before the film takes place: in the folly of youth, she ran away from the man she loved because of his silly-sounding last name, Dame. It would have made her Madame Dame, she argues, which is such an absurd reason to break her own heart that it’s almost comical. 

In the unreleased English version of the film, Simon’s surname is changed to Guillotine, an oddly gruesome detail, one that would be incongruous with the tone of the film if not for the fact that Demy peppers other jarring touches of violence throughout. There is, for example, the quiet menace of Guillame, who uses a small pistol to shoot at bags of paint hanging over a canvas, splattering paint like Pollock. Once, after Delphine breaks up with him, he shoots alarmingly close to where she’s standing, and both she and the audience flinch, just for a second, and then the film moves forward like nothing ever happened. It never rains in Rochefort, either, and all but one of the scenes take place in the daytime, under a cloudless blue sky. Notably, the one nighttime scene is absurd even for the standards of “Young Girls” — the dialogue, with no accompanying instrumental score, is spoken, not sung, exclusively in rhyming alexandrine couplets. 

In the film’s latter half, Demy introduces a subplot about a bloody ax murder, whose perpetrator turns out to be Subtil Dutrouz, a friendly old man who hangs about Yvonne’s café. The bloody details of the crime are discussed off-handedly and almost entirely in song. The subject isn’t treated with any more or less seriousness than the rest of the film’s concerns — Solange, too, lumps them all together, remarking, “This town’s crawling with soldiers, sadists, and painters!” The absurdity of it all adds to that aforementioned tension, the giddiness of the musical numbers conflicting with the little tragedies of the missed meetings, the murder, the yearning. 

“Young Girls” is a love story in which the climax of the film is not the love confession or even the first meeting; rather, it is yet another devastating missed opportunity at the end of a heartbreaking string of them. In an early scene, Delphine remarks, upon seeing Maxence’s painting, “He must really love me to dream me up like this.” Delphine, too, starts falling in love with Maxence before she ever meets him: Maxence jokes to Yvonne and Solange, separately, that he’s going to Nantes, because his leave is “immi-Nantes.” Solange doesn’t laugh, but Delphine, when Yvonne relates the joke to her later, does. And yet, for a few terrible minutes, even as Demy unites the other two couples — Yvonne and Simon Dame; Solange and Andy — it seems as though Delphine and Maxence’s chance has slipped them by. The music swells as Delphine is called into the back room of that glass-walled café, just as Maxence comes back in — he’s forgotten his bag, you see — and then rushes back out the door. Devastatingly, Delphine comes out of the back room to see an empty café: they’ve missed each other by mere seconds. But not two minutes later, just before the truck in which Delphine is hitchhiking reaches the transporter bridge, Maxence flags down that same truck. The door opens for him, he climbs in, and presumably comes face to face with the woman he’s been looking for all this time, but the scene is filmed as a wide shot, and we are left to imagine all these details. 

The happy ending of “Young Girls” is offhanded, as if Demy knows that the heightened desperation, the sharp longing, that arose in the café scene is what’s going to stick with the audience. That final missed encounter between Delphine and Maxence registers more viscerally, more immediately than their off-screen meeting does; as Rosenbaum puts it, “The split second by which Maxence misses Delphine at the café before he leaves Rochefort might well be the most tragic single moment in all of Demy’s work.” 

The lingering elation of knowing Delphine and Maxence have met at last almost manages to distract us from the reappearance of the transporter bridge, standing tall on the riverbank, the eccentric vehicle by which we entered this world and the means by which we must depart. You can’t stay here, Demy is telling us. You have to wake up eventually.