Love. Romance. Beautiful French women – and they’re twins, though not identical ones. Song and, yes, dance. Yup, we’re in Jacques Demy country, though if your only experience of Demy’s films is the sublimely melancholy Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) might feel like a change of pace. Where the former film will leave many teary-eyed, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a fluffy French meringue that, if you’re attuned to its pleasures, should put a big, goofy smile on your face. And that’s before we even get to the axe murderer subplot.
While on the surface, Demoiselles (English title: The Young Girls of Rochefort) and Parapluies (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) couldn’t be more different, it is not surprising that they both share the same DNA: both were written and directed by Demy, the music for both was written by Michel Legrand, both star a young Catherine Deneuve and are centrally concerned with love. However, where the lovers of Parapluies lose one another – not to death or tragedy, but to the demands of life and reality -, Demoiselles is the kind of fantasy where everyone is looking for love and most people find it, even if Demy’s film is puckish in having its most idealised potential couple never actually meet on-screen, stopping short of their actual first encounter. (And, again, that axe murder thing: does that qualify as Puckish, or does it go decidedly too far beyond love potions and mischief?)
I’ve seen Parapluies more than once and over a span of at least a decade but in spite of having a handy Jacques Demy box set on my shelf I’d not watched Demoiselles until a week ago. (Demy’s 1970s film Donkey Skin, another collaboration by Demy, Legrand and Deneuve had almost scared me away for good, as it is a rather acquired taste that I failed to acquire.) I wasn’t prepared for a film as delightful as this, and I definitely wasn’t prepared to enjoy the frothiest of romantic comedies where people behave in ways that would usually make me want to put them through the woodchipper from Fargo. If we want to be charitable, most of the people looking for love in Demoiselles behave like idiots. They fall for someone they’ve never even met. They leave their great love because that person has a silly surname. It’s the kind of world where it almost feels bizarre when two of the characters tell the twins outright that they fancy them and therefore want to go to bed with them, because everyone else seems to have learned about love from watching romantic comedies. By and large, the cast of characters and their romantic plights make the various plots in Love, Actually seem like they were written by, and are about, actual grown-up human beings.
And yet, it doesn’t matter, because Demoiselles is entirely self-aware. It doesn’t take itself or its idea of love seriously for a single second, even if it is still infatuated with that particular idea. Where Parapluies is about loss (not least of one’s younger, more idealistic self) and heartbreak, its lighter, happier twin Demoiselles is about being in love with the idea of love, while knowing very well how silly all the tropes of romantic stories are. And somehow, the musical genre is perfect for both of them: it heightens the feelings of Parapluies, elevating an everyday story about the end of first love to something more universal, more symphonic, without ever losing its almost painful intimacy, and the genre frees Demoiselles up to be pure, delirious play, colours and music, unfettered by realism – much like what happy love can feel like. Both films take the emotional landscapes of their characters and turn them inside out, expressing them in music, movement and colour.
Neither film is likely to convert haters of musicals – though Parapluies may have a better chance because it is set in a more recognisably real world, as opposed to Demoiselles‘ Rochefort where pedestrians break into dance and you may just bump into Gene Kelly, because obviously you would bump into Gene Kelly. But Demoiselles enriches Parapluies and vice versa. The two films are practically the two masks of Greek theatre, Comedy and Tragedy, expressed in the language of the French ’60s musical. And by complementing one another, each film makes me appreciate more what the other does.