The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Directed by Jaques Demy
Sunday, June 22 and Thursday, June 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Gene Kelly centennial
The first time Gene Kelly appears in The Young Girls of Rochefort, it feels like he's come from another movie. And he has—or from 33 previous films. Most of them are Hollywood musicals, with Kelly choreographing his own romping, muscular dance numbers that alternate taps and lunges from one end of the frame to the other. The cause is often reverie over a woman, which propels him to shows little French kids he's got rhythm on the streets of An American in Paris (1951) or thrust an umbrella around himself in Singin' in the Rain (1952). But it's the strange fate of this beautiful brute to be perennially in love, rather than with his lover. He always seems a bit distant from elegant, delicate partners like Cyd Charisse, and far more comfortable palling around. There is probably no other film like The Pirate (1948), a rollicking, red-drenched adventure in which he and the plastic Judy Garland energetically attempt to outrace each other; the film's last musical number, their vaudeville act "Be a Clown," shows them to be most together when performing outwardly for someone else.
A frequent Kelly shot gives him in close-up, his chin slightly diagonal, his eyes dazed from discovering a dear one. This is what we see in Young Girls as he bends to pick up a paper that Solange (Françoise Dorléac) has dropped on the street. He's an American composer and concert pianist named Andy Miller staying in the open, sunny town for a bit. When he talks to Solange he keeps his arms pulled tight and meek near his torso, his body partly held back and partly bending forward; it's only after she leaves that he can fully burst into joy. Director Jacques Demy waited two years for Kelly to become available before making Young Girls. And not just because of his skill or stardom, I think—the hesitation built into him, delaying him from love, fits the film.
Young Girls is about missed connections, lost opportunities, love culminating in happiness or in axe murder, and people who need to act quickly to hold onto each other or risk losing their beloved forever. Its leads, a pair of twins (Dorléac and real-life sister Catherine Deneuve) born in the sign of Gemini and their mother (Danielle Darrieux), reside in town while a host of men pass through it. There's a sailor on leave (Jacques Perrin), a pair of truckers (George Chakiris and Grover Dale), and an older, more halting man (Michel Piccoli) whom the mother once turned down because she didn't like his last name. And there's Andy Miller, the foreigner, appearing in just a few scenes, inside a house at the piano, or finding inspiration outside with a girl and a piece of music on the street. These are people, you sense, who have the luck (whether good or bad, or simply luck) to pass through each other's lives. The women and men know that life is short, so they celebrate and hold onto it together with song.