Criterion Month: Jacques Demy, Agnés Varda, and The Young Girls

© Ciné-tamaris

Jacques Demy filmed his cotton candy-colored, dream-like musical comedy on location in Rochefort — a small provincial military town in the southwest of France. The filmmaker and Agnés Varda, his wife and best friend until his untimely death, scouted different areas searching for the perfect location for this risky, American-like production. Rochefort’s town square along with the local architecture and the people convinced Demy that this was the perfect spot to create his unique vision. The filming took place during the summer of 1966 and all the hard work that went into those long hot months resulted in a masterpiece that lives on as a favorite for many — both in France and abroad.

The Young Girls of Rochefort has it all — mini skirts and sailor suits, talented twins who long for Paris, a murderer on the loose, and a Gene Kelly love interest. It is obvious in the dancing, costumes, and incredible songs,  which were written in collaboration with Michel Legrand, that Demy was inspired by the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s that “fed his dreams”. His end result was something personal and very specific to its creator but with much more depth than musical films produced in post-war America.

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Gene Kelly and Françoise Dorlèac in The Young Girls of Rochefort © Janus Films

In 1993, twenty-five years after the release of the film, the city of Rochefort gathered for the celebration of the production that reinvented their town. Catherine Deneuve was once again the star of the gathering but other big names, like Agnés Varda and Michel Legrand, were in attendance. In true Varda style, the documentarian was armed with a camera and conducted interviews with extras and other locals in Rochefort who remember the summer of 1966. She also gazed upon the ongoing festivities and met with people who have continued to embody the legacy of this particular Demy production through passing it on to their students or children.

Varda took this new footage from the celebration and mixed it with the old behind the scenes shots she captured in 1966 to create a documentary entitled The Young Girls Turn 25. Varda narrates the documentary and gives a personal insight into short clips of Demy rehearsing dance numbers with the sisters — sometimes with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips.

There is a particular part of this hour-long documentary that displays the unconditional love that existed between Demy and Varda — both in the obvious but also through subtext. While rehearsing a scene with Deneuve in the cafe set, Varda explains how much fun their daughter, Rosalie, had during the filming before remarking her mother tried her best to stay out of the way. Then, Varda leads right into an intimate shot of Jacques putting on a sweater while still talking to Deneuve. At first, it appears that the filmmaker is doing just that, putting on another layer because he is chilled,  but it is not until paired with Varda’s voiceover that this moment conveys so much more. Varda states, “Only I would have filmed my darling dressing with that special rhythm of his.” It is true — there is a precise way that Demy puts on his sweater as he first bunches up the bottom to the hole for the head then pulls it over. Then, he spaces out the sleeves on each side until he is comfortable. This simple act of putting on a sweater is something much more to lovers, as displayed through the lens of the camera and the want to watch your true love’s every move.

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Still from Varda’s behind the scenes footage © Ciné-tamaris

The couple had an understanding of each other — as filmmakers and as each other’s partners. The support Varda gave to Demy was not because of some oppressive protocol that society placed on women at the time but because she truly respected him. As Demy was sick,  and death was right around the corner, Varda fulfilled a dream of his by directing a film, Jacquot de Nantes, based on his childhood. This big gesture is obviously special and romantic but there is something about capturing your love’s specific tempo when dressing that shows a subtle, modest love that is intimate and authentic.

In today’s world — which seems to be getting darker as if the love for each other is being sucked out by some invisible force — it is hard to believe in true love. Divorce and breakups are a common occurrence and expectations from social media and society add other hurdles to make a successful relationship almost impossible. Let’s not forget the added racism, homophobia, and transphobia that creates a hostile environment for certain couples. Even in the sight of all this hate, there is something about the love and understanding that Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda shared that gives me hope that true love exists.

Granted, they had struggles and times of difficulty, as Varda reasonably mentions in some of her other works but they took the time to understand each other, to learn what respect and unconditional love actually look like. Their focus was not on allowing others to dictate what was personal but being open to each other’s wants and desires. Both continued to make their art in a particular style and though their only collaboration was the before mentioned Jacquot de Nantes, they supported each other’s dreams and visions.

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Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy © Ciné-tamaris

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a personal film — to Jacques Demy, to the citizens of Rochefort, and to everyone that has seen it and felt a connection to its dazzling tone and catchy tunes. Thankfully, Agnès Varda had her never-sleeping camera to capture the moments in the production that are just as magical as the artistic result. It is through her documentary that we learn about the reality that existed behind the fairytale-like world of Jacques Demy and it is through The Young Girls Turn 25 that we see that true love is capturing the love of your life as they put on a sweater.

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