Foreign Film Week: Growing Up with ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’

Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

Guest post written by Lou Flandrin.

This masterpiece by Jacques Demy is definitely the most important movie of my childhood. Part of it is probably due to the hours I spent listening to the cheerful singing while going away on vacation with my family. Singing in the car is the best remedy to car sickness and boredom, and so the whole family would happily sing along these tunes about dreams, true love, and living life to the fullest.

While I love this movie because of the catchy lyrics, colourful clothes and the giddy state in which it turns me, I also appreciate its depiction of women’s lives and family bonds. I am grateful to have had these depictions to look up to when I was growing up, of sisters and friends who didn’t fight against each other, but worked together towards their dreams to have an artistic career and to find happiness.

The plot of the movie is quite simple: the main characters, Delphine and Solange, are twins who are tired of their provincial lives and decide to go to Paris to start their artistic career. As they plan their departure, the summer fair is settling in the beautiful city of Rochefort – which was painted in pastel colours for the movie – and fair workers, sailors and musicians will cross their path, webs of stories will get intertwined, resulting in a wonderful puzzle of emotions, songs, and choreographed happiness.

A Celebration of Love in All its States

While this movie is about soul mates finding each other, it is above all a celebration of love in general, love of life and of all the little things that makes the world so amazing. A perfect illustration of this is the song that the twins perform for the fair’s big show, “La Chanson d’un Jour d’été” which is all about loving life, and as they sing it: “loving the world in order to be happy.” This positive philosophy is a recurring leitmotif in the movie. Two fair workers – played by George Chakiris and Grover Dale – contribute to the theme by singing about the joys of travelling and living life to the fullest in every city they visit, “running from one happiness to the next.” With such a positive outlook, it’s no wonder this movie makes me want to smile and dance around like a maniac!

Being in love is obviously still a major theme, but it is presented as a complement to this love of life and freedom. Most of the characters are on a quest to find their true love in their own different ways. Yvonne, the twins’ mother, is longing for her lost love, whom she rejected years before because of his ridiculous last name. Andy, an American composer, is feeling incomplete after spending his whole life focusing on his musical career. Simon Dame, the dissed lover with a ridiculous name, is now back in Rochefort when he once was in love with Yvonne. Maxence, a young artist doing his military service in Rochefort, dreams about his feminine ideal, painting her portrait that looks eerily like Delphine.

Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) discovers Maxence’s painting

There is no distinction between a feminine or masculine depiction of love, as lovers’ voices share the same intensity, and their songs echo each other. Love “is the sole authority” and erases the discriminations of gender, social class or even moral virtue.

The twins have their own expectations about love. While it is no secret that they have had their share of lovers – as sung in their famous “Chanson des Jumelles,” they are now both looking for someone to share their lives with, and will take action towards this goal. At the beginning of the movie, Delphine dumps her phony and creepy boyfriend Lancien in an amazing break-up song, in which she reproaches him of treating her like “just another doll” and not understanding anything about her dreams. Lancien gets a few lines in the song as well, but he misses the point entirely. He mistakes his desire to own Delphine with love, and will try repeatedly to get her back, including with a poor attempt to convince her that she would need someone like him to look after her in Paris. But Delphine knows better than that, and replies that she never wants to see him again. Good riddance!

A Celebration of Friendship and Family Ties

What I like about this movie is that it’s not all about true love, as friends and family are shown as equally important parts of life. The two sisters live together in harmony, they confide in each other, share their joys and fears, and sing to each other about everything. Another interesting duo is that of the two girls who were supposed to sing and dance at the fair. After discussing it with each other, they decide to leave Etienne and Bill, the two fair workers, because they are tired of being exploited and want to live their own lives. Sure, they have their own superficial reasons (Bill doesn’t have blue eyes, sailors are better lovers…) but still, the message is out there, they want to free themselves and they do it together.

Guys are not excluded from this friendship pattern. Etienne and Bill have known each other for years, they travel together and share the same adventures and heartbreaks. They sing about their undying friendship, describing themselves as penniless knights with hearts of gold running from cities to cities. When the girls leave them for blue-eyed sailors, they echo their previous song about freedom, and leave the scene smiling at each other. Later on, when they very awkwardly ask the twins if they want to sleep with them and get rejected, they sing together about their bad luck with women.

True bros wear tight jeans and white boots, it is known. (George Chakiris and Grover Dale)

As for family ties, they are not limited to the sibling relationship between Delphine and Solange. Their mother Yvonne has raised three children on her own, sacrificing her life in order to help her family become well-read. She owns a café, and spends her days behind the counter. While she is at work all the time, in what she calls her “aquarium,” the café becomes the family home. The twins come and go to chat, Yvonne’s father spends his time in a corner constructing models, and Booboo, the youngest son, is always brought from the café to school and vice-versa.

A Celebration of Art

Art is what allows the characters to escape the mundanity of their daily lives, as when Maxence evades from the army barracks every night to paint in his studio. Art and love are pictured as complementary. While Andy is a successful composer, he feels a void, and realises that Solange might be the one who can fill it. They fall in love at first sight, and their idyll is written in F-sharp minor, just like Solange’s concerto that she accidentally drops on the ground when they meet, and that will further charm Andy.

Andy (Gene Kelly) singing about his love for Solange and her concerto

Art can be used negatively, for example in the case of Lancien, Delphine’s ex, who owns a gallery, and “creates” abstract paintings by shooting at balloons full of paint over white canvasses. Unlike the other characters, his art is depicted as destructive, and is echoed in his negative discourses on how he wants to own Delphine and control her life.

A Celebration of Freedom

What makes all the characters of this charming tale so unique is that they are all striving for freedom, and taking action to achieve their independence. Delphine doesn’t want to become Lancien’s doll and decides to leave to Paris to become famous on her own. While her reasons were questionable, Yvonne’s refusal to marry Simon can also be interpreted as a way to stay independent: she didn’t want to become Madame Dame, and chose to struggle on her own rather than becoming his wife.

Throughout the movie, the twins keep saying what comes to their mind, and doing what they want. When the fair workers come to the twins’ door to ask them to take part in their show, they imply that they need their help to go to Paris, which scandalises the sisters. They don’t want to be patronised and don’t want to be mere substitutes either, which is why they will participate to the show in their own way. Delphine buys revealing dresses that she thinks are beautiful, and Solange wonders: “Aren’t you afraid we might look slutty?” Delphine dismisses the comment, and they end up wearing those dresses on stage, showing everybody that they do not care about what people might think. Similarly, Solange couldn’t care less that her dress’ lining is showing, despite everybody insisting on reminding her. The twins’ indifference to other people’s judgement is also seen in their anthem, in which they proudly sing that they were born from an unknown father, and that they had lovers at a very young age.

Who doesn’t love characters who sing in the face of slut-shaming? (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac)

Freedom is celebrated through the characters’ ability to travel the world to their fancy, like the fair workers who are happiest when they travel, or the sisters who decide to try their luck in Paris. Lack of freedom, for instance in Yvonne’s case, stuck in her “aquarium”, is depicted as the culmination of misery. She evades by dreaming of Pacific beaches, and will only be happy when she manages to get out of her café and find her former lover in front of Booboo’s school.

The musical has some darker notes, with the side story of a sadistic killer who killed a woman and cut her in little pieces because she refused his love for 40 years. Lancien’s obsession with Delphine echoes that of the killer, and we can only hope that he will not follow her to Paris to copycat the tragic event.

Paint Life in Pastel Tones

Haters will diss the cheesy dialogue, the ridiculous plots devices used to make characters miss or meet each other, and the overly cheerful singing. People might also argue that this movie is offering a false depiction of life, in which true love can always be found if one sings about with enough passion, and roams prettily the streets of France while dancing in colourful clothing.

But this very naivety is what makes Les Demoiselles de Rochefort so brilliant. Everything in the movie makes it clear that it is only a wonderful tale, far from reality. If you look at it that way, and decide to immerse yourself in Demy’s pastel singing city, you will end up happier and confident that while real life doesn’t have the same splendour, the ideals it promotes are very real.

Lou Flandrin is a French graduate in languages and international politics. Currently living in Chengdu (China), she is a volunteer translator and author at Global Voices Online, and sometimes tweets about Sichuanese food, robots, and other stuff.

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