(In French, On TV, December 2018) Just as I was tempted to dismiss writer/director Jacques Demy on the basis of the unbearable Les parapluies de Cherbourg, here comes the much better Les demoiselles de Rochefort to redeem it all. This far improved follow-up fixes my two biggest annoyances with the previous film: Much of the dialogue is spoken rather than sung, and it does feature a happy ending (even though it’s by mere seconds—the film does toy with its audience toward the end, perhaps keenly aware that those having seen Les parapluies de Cherbourg almost expected an unhappy ending.) That alone could have been enough to make it a good movie, but then it goes the extra mile. Not only does it feature a young gorgeous Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, but here is no less than Gene Kelly (visibly older, but still capable) walking in for a few scenes and a dance number. Very, very colourful, Les demoiselles de Rochefort makes the best of its coastal-town setting, starting with an elevated bridge dance sequence, then spending much of its time in a public square with a fantastically glassed-in café set. There’s a little bit of atonal weirdness when it turns out that there’s an axe murderer (!) hanging around, but otherwise the film is far more successful than its predecessor. “Chanson des Jumelles” is a great, memorable number, but it’s really the cheerful colourful atmosphere of the film that wins audiences over. I happened upon the movie by chance, playing as it was in the middle of the night on an unlikely TV channel, and almost gave it a pass. Only Gene Kelly’s name drew me in, and I’m glad it did—Les demoiselles de Rochefort is now one of my favourite French films of the 1960s, which is saying something considering the strengths of the decade for French cinema.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) You would think that I, being a francophone fan of musicals, would be a natural audience for Les parapluies de Cherbourg, perhaps the best-known musical to emerge from 1960s France and a major influence over films such as Damien Chazelle La-La Land. But I reserve the right to have idiosyncratic reactions, and as it turns out I’m this close to loathing writer/director Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg. For one thing, it’s a downer musical. For another, it’s a wall-to-wall musical: The characters can’t stop singing even in dialogue scenes when there is no song, no rhymes, no arrangement, no accompanying choreography, no reason to sing. The effect is profoundly irritating. It sounds like incessant meowing for no reason and if I don’t like it from my cat at six o’clock (well, at least she’s hungry—it’s for a reason), I don’t necessarily like it from my TV screen for an hour and a half. Les parapluies de Cherbourg drove me crazy in a way that most musicals don’t, seemingly magnifying everything that usually annoys people about musicals. The reason why I can’t quite bring myself to kick this movie in the trashcan is that it does have some charm once past the meowing. The story is simple and while it ends in a not-so-happy way (well, the guy is happy and the woman isn’t so much and the audience least of all), it does feel rather endearing during its first act, especially before the unrelenting singing becomes unbearable. It’s also immensely colourful, with a portrayal of late-1950s small-town northern France that is affectionate and stylized at once. The ending sequence, as melancholic as it can be, is beautifully shot and doesn’t forget, through a signed “Cherbourgeoisie,” to put its class message front and centre. Given that I followed Les parapluies de Cherbourg by the absurdly ridiculous Au hazard Balthazar, it’s even far from being the worst movie I’ve seen that day. Maybe I’ll revisit it eventually. But maybe I’ll wear earmuffs. [January 2019: I’m happy to report that Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Jacques Demy’s follow-up musical to Les parapluies de Cherbourg, is a far more enjoyable film.]