Film Reviews

The [Plural Nouns] of [French Town] (1964, 1967)

I’m taking a step back from a somewhat overwhelming stockpile of musicals in my DVR to get back to the basics, continuing on my “That’s Entertainment” list and just generally being open to watching new things, without the threat of Warning! Your DVR is currently 98% full!. That’s not the most conducive environment for watching films, so I’m going to go through my list and identify those that are most important to my overall education.

So, anyway–with this mindset, I came upon an impromptu double feature of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Umbrellas was featured on TCM as part of their Summer Under the Stars series–this was Catherine Deneuve’s day, of course. I’d enjoyed it a lot, and in Robert Osbourne’s discussion afterwards noted that Demy’s follow-up to this picture was The Young Girls of Rochefort, which, he cheekily added, also featured Gene Kelly and George Chakiris.

Consider my interest piqued.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a modern French opera, starring Deneuve alongside Nino Castelnuovo as her young lover, Guy, and Anne Vernon as her mother. There’s no spoken dialogue, just singing, which, played against the modern (1964) setting, makes for a kind of dreamy, ethereal feeling. The young couple seems impossibly in love at the film’s start, but when Guy gets drafted into the French-Algerian war, their romance is tested. The film is a gorgeous, Technicolor spectacle, impeccably framed and often heart-wrenching, but it’s an important work of 20th century film, and especially interesting in the context of musicals.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) borrows a lot of the same visual tics of Cherbourg, but it’s an entirely different energy. Unlike Cherbourg, Rochefort is not a full opera, so there’s plenty of spoken dialogue between each, clearly-defined musical number. This allows the filmmakers to choreograph dances, and craft catchy (so, so catchy) tunes for every song. The presence of Kelly and Lakiris also contributes to the feeling that this is a much more “traditional” musical (though, in a greater perspective, what could be more “traditional” than an opera?). I think this is why Rochefort is often overlooked in discussions of the era… Cherbourg was undoubtedly something new, fresh, innovative–though great and a lot of fun, I think it’s harder for audiences to distinguish Rochefort from something like West Side Story.

I really liked both of these films, and though Rochefort is probably the easier watch–though there’s some drama in the “missed encounters,” it’s nothing compared to the soul-crushing moments of Cherbourg–I think Cherbourg is probably the better technical accomplishment. Luckily, there’s room for both of them on the DVD shelf, and I’d eagerly recommend both of them to any curious viewer.

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