Intro and Q&A with Catherine Clark on The Young Girls of Rochefort by Jacques Demy

CATHERINE: I’m glad to be here and thank you for that introduction and I’d like to thank Yangqiao Lu, who initially sent out the invitation to me. So why screen the Young Girls of Rochefort now? Its 2017, this film came out in 1967, so that’s fifty years ago. To film curators, that’s normally enough to show something on it’s 50th or 25th anniversary, but I also think this film is an important one, its one that I really like and I think it gives a different vision of French cinema that you may be used to be seeing in American movies theaters. SO if you think about 1967 and French film, you’re probably thinking about Jon Luc Godard, François Truffaut…revolutionary filmmaking and this obsession with Maoism. This is not that type of film. Young Girls of Rochefort is made for a mass audience. It’s joyful, it’s delightful, it’s shot in vibrant color, it’s a different type of innovative formal filmmaking. So for a long time, Demy was thought of as less successful than Godard, he was thought of as less than an auteur, and he fell out of favor in 1970s and 80s and he’s recently made a comeback and this was due to the DVD box set of his work and the screenings organized around that, and I think that you will find him intriguing. He has a style that is about building a universe, it’s about creating an alternate world and that’s one of the things I want you to think about. How is he creating a different type of universe in his film?

The other reason to show him here, now, is because The Brattle is having a screening series for Agnes Varda. Agnes Varda was Jacques Demy’s wife and creative partner, and so this is an opportunity to think about those two filmmakers together. Varda was very interested in documentary and examining everyday experience and raising questions about what it is like to live in this world and Demy, who is creating different worlds for people to live and creating different types of experience. I am happy to talk about this more after the film.

I want you to watch for three things, think about three things as you’re watching. First of all, Demy is very much about the engagement of the fate, or destiny, missed meetings. There is song that you will all leave here singing and I should probably say I wouldn’t sing it now for you, but maybe afterwards. It’s a song about being twins and being born under the sign of Gemini. So what does it mean to be twins born under the sign of the twins? This is a song sung by Catherine Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorleac, who died three months after this film was released, so it’s about the last moment of seeing this two vibrant women together. Fate and destiny in this film is the first thing that I want you to think about.

The second thing is – it’s a musical, so how is this film involved with conventions of musicals, which we often think of as being an American genre? So you will see Gene Kelly in this film, you will see George Chakiris from West Side Story. And you may or may not recognize the music of Michel Legrand, one of the most prolific music composers, still working in France today. Think about these conventions and how is Demy playing with them.

The third thing that I want you to think about is how he is transforming those conventions to make a French object. One of the things that I think is really important in this transformation is deciding not to set this film where American directors set French musicals – in Paris – but to set it in Rochefort. So, Rochefort is a city on the western coast of France. It’s a port town. For a long time it was a very important naval base. The naval arsenal leaves Rochefort in 1926 and Rochefort declines after that. In 1966, when Demy is shooting this film Rochefort is in decline already and experiencing what a lot of these western ports will only experience in the 1980s and 1990s where industry leaves, ports empty out, and these cities have to think about how to rebrand themselves. So, I want you to look at architecture, I want you to think about who is walking around. There’s a Tati-esque café in the film. There’s also a beautiful old kind of 18th century to 19th century stone architecture. Demy also had almost all of the façades in Rochefort repainted for the film. What does it mean to paint the town in candy colors for the film. We’ll talk more after the film. I really look forward to hearing what you have to say and talking to you. And my last tip is to look closely at all of the nuns in the film.

Q&A (excerpt)

NED: Catherine, is there anything you wanted to say?

CATHERINE: I kept thinking like you wouldn’t marry a guy like Monsieur Dame but you name your kid Booboo. That’s my mean critical comment on the film.

NED: Did anyone have any initial comments or considerations? Yeah, go ahead.

AUDIENCE: I don’t know if I got this from somewhere else, but the thing I was thinking is that this movie was 1967. People must’ve been pissed when they saw this, on the right and on the left. They have soldiers marching in shirts and ties. And sailors are in this really cute outfit. Is that accurate? What was the reaction?

CATHERINE: So, well it’s France right? So, France had been in war with Vietnam and was no longer. Actually what’s interesting about 1967 in France is that it was a period of peace. France is at war from 1940-1962. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people protesting the war in Vietnam and are worried about American imperialism. The French are not a country at war in 67. Actually what is so interesting about this is that in the film soldiers are so much a part of daily life that they’re just part of Jacques Demy’s imaginary. Like the idea that there would be soldiers, kicking through the streets dressed up adorably in something purple, very cute, but they’re part of this aesthetic. And one of the things I didn’t mention is that Jacques Demy dies of AIDS and he was necessarily an out gay man in his time, there is this kind of gay aesthetic in the film and about sexualizing these soldiers he had seen running around in France for his entire life.

NED: Well I also was thinking about this as a reaction to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg which is for all intents and purposes, a serious musical. In some ways, this is two years later. It’s a response. It’s a follow-up. It’s part of his world building which extends beyond the boundaries of this film and extends to the rest of his work which are all strangely interconnected in different ways, but this is in ways a response in which nothing is taken seriously, including the murder. Who’s the murderer? Literally nothing is taken seriously, whereas The Umbrellas is much more an operetta and it’s a tragedy. It’s a very wistful film. That’s an interesting response, from a filmmaker to his own work.

AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you have any particular thoughts about the significance of Simon Dame cutting out the little paper cutouts of soldiers paired with odd moments from the music score. I’ve seen the movie a number of times and I guess my assumption is that it’s supposed to signify the fact that the military aesthetic or tone has gotten into everybody’s heads, even something so apparently un-military as Simon Dame. I was wondering if you had any other thoughts on that.

CATHERINE: Two things. One, I think for me, it brought to mind that the modern world is cutting people up. It’s kind of referenced in Dutrouz and the murder. And we see him after with the knife, the grandfather with the scissors and then we see Monsieur Dame with the scissors as well. Thinking about the cutting and pasting, a part of modern life. But I also wonder if its a self-reference from Demy about playing the soldiers. Children growing up, playing soldier and not just realizing what that means. To play soldier to compare yourself to cannon fodder. So I think its both kind of a light-hearted reference to the film itself and how it plays with the soldiers and placing them and then making them move but then also, seeks to find some very real observations about the world in which we live in. This is what I think is so powerful about Demy’s world building, it is both fanciful and beautiful and a fairy tale and candy colored but it’s also sinister.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, I like that the women don’t just have goals, but they have artistic aspirations and they’re taken seriously as artists. Gene Kelly is like “Oh, this is great music.” He admires what she’s doing.

YANGQIAO: I think that is a really interesting point, because I think commonly people find Agnes Varda and the women in her film are very different from the female characters in Demy’s films, who more so fit into the conventional idea of femininity while Varda was part of the female movement and she was an activist. She was such an activist and she would have gatherings home and Demy would actually sometimes get a little annoyed and go out and take a walk. But I really like what you said. These are not like dummies or dolls. They are women and they actually have their ambitions and their ideas.

AUDIENCE: Was this movie well received in the time by audiences and critics?

NED: It was nominated for an Academy Award so it had a certain level of respect, but it then had a reputation of being largely forgotten for many years and was re-released in the 90s by Sony Pictures Classics.

CATHERINE: It did not make back its budget and is largely considered a flop. At the same time, it gets Demy invited to Hollywood. So he’ll make his next film in Los Angeles, which is Model Shop. Model Shop will follow Lola to Los Angeles. The only way he could make it is because of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

AUDIENCE: It’s funny, something that always sticks out to me between this and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that the lyrics to all of his songs are just so conversational, more of a conversation of lyrics. So is that his style or is it playing with the idea of a French musical or was it a choice he made to keep it lighthearted?

CATHERINE: That’s a great question. Because I was thinking about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as Catherine Denueve is showing Francoise Dorleac the dresses and they’re having a conversation about whether or not they’re too risqué. Like “Oh my god, they’ll take us for whores.” They’re on the street, but it’s sung, so I think that that is Demy, but then that builds a tradition of French musicals where you have dialogue that is totally inane being sung. So Love Letters, a French musical that came out in the early 2000s – and there’s great Film Notes about a couple of French musicals – and a lot of these musicals have a lot of inane dialogue, so Demy starts a tradition with that. What I can’t speak for is whether that is coming from a kind of operatic musicals from France in the 19th century. My gut belief is that it is partly that.

NED: I do think that it adds to making it a distinct world from even other musicals. That’s the beautiful thing about this film and Cherbourg, because they exist in on of themselves to create a new tradition, but in a way they exist in their own world that references other musicals, that shares some of their forms but in a way is something completely other worldly, and LeGrand is an amazing musician and composer and he wrote the music to the dialogue. It wasn’t like they sat down and composed songs together. Demy had the lines and LeGrand wrote the music. So I think it’s an interesting thing in and of itself, which is what makes it beautiful.

AUDIENCE: What about the nuns?

CATHERINE: Oh, one of them is Agnes Varda. There’s one of your right and then there’s one that’s a little shy and hides behind the other nuns. So now you’ll have to watch it again.

AUDIENCE: This is about the tenth time I’ve seen the movie and a hypothesis occurred to me that never occurred to me in the previous viewings is that Demy seems to have a feeling that biology is destiny with pheromones – or whatever you want to call it. For example, Maxcence is momentarily attracted to Solange because of her real similarity to his real love of Delphine. Simon is momentarily attracted to Solange, not realizing that she’s the daughter of his real love, Yvonne. Bill and Etienne are first attracted to Delphine, then they’re attracted to Solange, at first thinking they’re the same person. Dutrouz notices a similarity between Delphine and the woman that he murders and that made me wonder, is it possible that Delphine is the granddaughter of the woman that was murdered?

CATHERINE: Oh, I thought he recognized her from the painting. But yeah, with the pheromone theory of Jacques Demy. I mean I would read that. But I think its good to also think about how there’s also something about family in the way in which those family ties – even when things are secret – they are still passed down. There’s a way in which your biology is part of that. My last word if I could have it is that I had so much fun watching this with you all. You all were really into it. And it’s something magical about going to the movies with a bunch of people and hearing their reactions and laughter. It’s really such a treat. Oh wait, someone else wants to have the last word.

NED: I just want to end with that we don’t know what our September movie will be yet. Our October movie will be the original Planet of the Apes. So similar time frame, slightly different concepts (sarcastically). I’ll send you out on a YouTube quest for old episodes of The Muppet Show, because the choreographer that worked on the Muppet Show, he choreographed, Swine the Oral Swine Lake with Rudolph Nureyev dancing with giant pigs, so off into the night. Thank you very much. Thank you Catherine.


Guest Speaker Catherine Clark is Associate Professor of French Studies in the department of Global Studies and Languages at MIT. She writes and teaches about the history of modern France, specializing in photography and film. Her book about Parisian history and photography is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. For the 2017-2018 academic year, she’ll be a fellow at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton working on a book about the French interest in China post 1949.
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