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The Young Girls of Rochefort: Summer Days and Sister Acts in the Director’s Rapturous Musical

A euphoric swirl of sherbet colors, Jacques Demy’s Hollywood-musical homage The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) elevates even the most mundane actions to the spectacular: Simply crossing the street occasions an ecstatic choreography of cartwheeling and front-flipping passersby. The film, Demy’s fourth, was his follow-up to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the melancholy, all-sung project that still remains the director’s best-known work. And while Umbrellas is unquestionably magnificent, I hope that BAMcinématek’s week-long run of Young Girls in a new DCP restoration will at least make viewers seriously consider which is the greater of the director’s musicals.

Demy once claimed, “I’m trying to create a world in my films.” That goal is floridly realized in Young Girls: During filming in the port town of the title, in southwestern France, he ordered thousands of shutters and façades to be repainted in pastel shades. (Port cities were a favorite setting for Demy; the one he grew up in, Nantes, is the locale for his debut feature, 1961’s Lola.) Spanning roughly 72 hours, from Friday morning to Monday at noon, Young Girls opens with the arrival of a traveling fair; disembarking from their trucks, the go-go-booted carnies move with sinuous, Fosse–like grace on a transporter bridge, all to the tinkling piano of Michel Legrand, Demy’s frequent collaborator. While the performers set up in the main plaza — their exhilaration recalling that of On the Town‘s trio of horny seamen as they race down the gangplank to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to begin their shore leave — viewers’ nervous systems might be overwhelmed by a flood of endorphins. The troupers, led by Etienne (George Chakiris, who played Bernardo in the film version of West Side Story) and Bill (Grover Dale, a Broadway dancer) leap and twirl among bounding sailors, soldiers, and mod moms, dressed in Kool-Aid–colored leotards.

As this exuberant number winds down, a fluid crane shot drops us into the second-story apartment and studio space of twin sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac, Deneuve’s adored real-life sibling). They are the extravagantly bewigged and bonneted demoiselles at the heart of the film, an aspiring dancer and composer, respectively, who’ve grown weary of giving ballet lessons to Rochefort’s tykes and want to ditch their hometown for artistic glory in Paris. Their aspirations, coupled with the imminent carnival, set in motion an intricate plot of love lost, found, and hoped for, of missed connections and chance rendezvous.

The musical numbers of the sœurs are, fittingly, the film’s most buoyant. Their “Song of a Summer Day,” which they perform as a clear homage to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, exhorts us: “Love the cold, love the wind/Love the cities and the fields/Love the sea, love the flames/Love the world and be happy again.” Demy’s lyrics never register as corny imperatives; within the utterly convincing florid, fantastic realm he’s created here, contravening Delphine and Solange’s mandates would be unthinkable. And never mind that Deneuve and Dorléac’s singing is dubbed, like that of all the other actors except Danielle Darrieux, who plays the twins’ mother. Even in a film that so flawlessly carries out its maker’s exacting, effulgent vision, there is still room for imperfections and oddities, which only add to Young Girls‘ abundant charms. Deneuve’s dancing is awkward but no less spirited in “Song of a Summer Day,” and the incongruity of Gene Kelly (playing an American virtuoso composer), still foxy at 53 and resplendent in pink and white, stirring romantic yearnings in Dorléac, an actress 30 years his junior, is merely superficial.

Despite the felicity of that May-December romance, the most magical pairing in this supremely cheering movie is the one between the two cast members who share DNA. Deneuve’s elder by 19 months, Dorléac never reached her younger sister’s level of fame, stardom that was ushered in with the international success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve’s first collaboration with Demy. (The director and Deneuve would reteam twice more after Young Girls, for 1970’s Donkey Skin and 1973’s A Slightly Pregnant Man.) Sadly, we’ll never know what could have become of Dorléac, who died, at age 25, in a car accident just a few months after the French release of Young Girls. Her untimely demise, which seems even crueler in light of the blazingly vibrant woman onscreen, casts the longest shadow on this radiant movie, the penultimate in Dorléac’s slim 16-film corpus.

If “[m]ovies resurrect the beautiful dead,” as per Susan Sontag, this exhumation — of a deceased performer, of an almost 50-year-old French musical — also helps us consider anew those still very much alive. Deneuve, who has credited Dorléac for pushing her onto her career path (“I was unmotivated. Like Sleeping Beauty, I was waiting. My sister was the one who got me into acting”), displays a kind of glee in Young Girls not often associated with her. Watch as she beams and gently strokes Dorléac’s hair, a seemingly unscripted moment of sororal affection, when the latter sings of meeting Kelly’s character. I’d like to think Deneuve’s palpable joy, despite the arduousness of the shoot (chronicled in the 1993 commemorative doc The Young Girls Turn 25 by Agnès Varda, Demy’s widow), stems from the delight she felt in working with her beloved big sis. My delight in watching them, which remains undiminished, even after some 20 viewings in the past 16 years, certainly does.

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On My Way Is a Mildly Merry Film Despite Familial Bad Decisions

As far as menopausal-crisis road-trip semi-dramas go, this hormonal launch into the provinces has several advantages, including Emmanuelle Bercot’s fluid nonstop traveling camera, which maintains an organic relationship with its characters and landscape that any American movie should envy.

But primarily the film has Catherine Deneuve, who is her classically resonant self as a small-town ex-beauty queen and grandmother shattered again by romantic disappointment and who leaves her failing restaurant one day and falls off the grid.

At first, she has only a surprisingly hard time locating cigarettes driving around in the Brittany hinterlands, but of course life won’t leave her alone — specifically, her errant daughter (Camille, just Camille) calls and demands that she take charge of her embittered 10-year-old son (Nemo Schiffman).

We’ve all developed defensive scars against old-people-and-little-kid narratives constructed like rope bridges leading from grumpiness to hope, but Bercot’s film contains no such arc — just some familial juice, plenty of bad decisions, and more than a little mortal worry.

It manages to be a mildly merry film in any case, because its realism is patient and inclusive, from the country bar full of harmless lager-drunk yahoos to the extended scene with an ancient, swollen-fingered man trying to roll a smoke for Deneuve’s nicotine-desperate heroine. (Moments like these feel improvised by locals.)

In the end, we’re not paid off with a moral but merely with time spent in the remarkably humble company of, as Film Comment put it on their cover last year, Her Majesty.

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GOING MAD

Screen goddess Catherine Deneuve is the main attraction in Roman Polanski’s sickening 1965 English language debut, Repulsion. As a Belgian manicurist consumed by sexual confusion and frustration (gross men leer at her on the harsh London streets; her in flagrante delicto sister moans through the apartment walls), Deneuve generates a paranoid psychosis that gives the movie its erratic form. A definitive work of claustrophobic horror, Repulsion offers some of Polanski’s most famous, insidious images: an uncooked rabbit left to rot, molesting arms protruding from the apartment walls, a split second apparition in a mirror. At the time, the film seemed a bravura Hitchcock riff; it’s clear by now that its blend of alarming surrealism and dime ­store Freudian thinking deserves its own place in the pantheon.

Wed., Feb. 12, 1 p.m.; Thu., Feb. 13, 1 p.m., 2014

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Concussion Clumsily Hits You Over the Head

‘After 40, you have to choose between your ass or your face,” one offscreen spin-class participant remarks to her fellow affluent fitness enthusiasts within the first minute of writer-director Stacie Passon’s poorly conceived Concussion. The remark is a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Catherine Deneuve, and the first of two times the actress is evoked. One of the French icon’s most enduring characters, Séverine, the bored bourgeois housewife who takes on the 2-to-5 shift at a Paris bordello in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), would seem to be a partial inspiration for Concussion‘s Abby (Robin Weigert), a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom chafing against domestic drudgery. But like its opening adage, so much in Passon’s debut feature, as in other inferior descendants of Buñuel’s great film, has been repeated over the decades to the point of banality: sexless marriage, midlife regrets, and deadening suburbs.

That Abby is wedded to a woman, divorce lawyer Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), may make her a new kind of protagonist in an old scenario, though her lesbianism does little to vivify these hoary setups. Abby and Kate and their two young children (played by Passon’s and her partner’s own) live in the leafy town of Montclair, New Jersey (where Passon and her family reside). Our jarring introduction to this foursome stands out as Concussion‘s best scene: Abby, blood streaming down the left side of her face, scaldingly reproaches her son, whose errant baseball toss was the cause of her gory gash. Weeping in the passenger seat, she says to Kate, or perhaps to anyone who will listen, “It just goes and goes. . . . I don’t want this, I don’t want this . . .”

The promise of this raw, potent incident, however, quickly devolves into a series of unconvincing scenes in service to an outlandish premise. After her head injury, Abby declares she’s “going back to work,” labor that entails buying and renovating a walk-up loft in Manhattan—a 30-minute drive and a lifetime away from her Garden State social set, who brag of long-ago wild nights spent at Limelight and Don Hill’s—with the help of twentyish contractor Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky). He will soon be assisting Abby in another enterprise: finding clients for her $800-per-session sapphic sex work, all of which transpires in her West Side pied-à-terre, tastefully adorned in pseudo-boho chic. (Every shot of the apartment seems to include a framed Guerilla Girls manifesto or a poster for a Louise Bourgeois exhibition.)

Abby’s bold business plan, launched after she’s had two experiences as a john, is a reaction to the frost and frustrations she encounters in her own marital bed: Conjugal relations reach a nadir after Kate falls asleep in the middle of administering digital stimulation. Yet this thwarted diddle is one of the few instances when Kate, who often appears only fleetingly as a harried figure in a business suit, registers as an actual, flawed human being instead of a hazy sketch. That vagueness—of Kate, of her partnership with Abby—burdens Concussion, rendering most of it dully schematic and half-thought-out. Abby’s drastic measure to give and receive pleasure is less implausible, in fact, than that she goes by “Mrs.” and that she and Kate appear to have no gay friends—female or male—at all.

In place of precision, Passon, whose background is in commercial production, gives us plenty of visual clichés: unhappy Abby sitting on a duvet, a mountain of unfolded laundry beside her; running faster and faster on a basement treadmill until she pukes, the arduous exertion to nowhere also echoed in the spin classes she takes with the other bored Essex County moms. One of those fit matrons, Sam (Maggie Siff), will become a repeat customer of Abby’s, and likes it a bit rough in bed (“Pull my hair. Harder“). Most of what happens, though, during Abby’s business hours is all perfectly pleasant and vanilla, with no actor, particularly Weigert, conveying any sense of carnal abandon—the need for which supposedly led Abby to her exorbitantly priced freelance gig in the first place. (Though it’s even more fatuous than Passon’s film, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, which will be released in three weeks, at least tries, boldly if often clumsily, to capture the all-consuming lust between its female leads.)

“I hardly recognize myself some days,” Sam says to Abby at one point. The problem with Concussion is exactly the opposite: Its characters are all too easily determined but never specific—or memorable.

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Un Flic, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Final Act, At Film Forum

Haunted by death-obsessed men of action, Un Flic (A Cop) is a fitting final act for noir master Jean-Pierre Melville, who died in 1973, a year after this production. The title suggests that film is about Edouard Coleman, Alain Delon’s weary policeman, but the true subject is Coleman’s age. These characters are all worn down by time, and while that doesn’t make them sentimental or sloppy, they are always aware that any screw-up could get them killed. The balletic opening bank heist, a precise, dialogue-free set piece where deferred stares speak louder than the roaring of waves rolling in at a nearby beach, happens at twilight, but the metallic sky looming overhead makes it impossible to be sure of the time of day. After this robbery, a group of thieves led by Simon (Richard Crenna) plan their next job, and Edouard follows them. Meanwhile, a love triangle between Edouard, his mistress, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), Simon, her lover, takes center stage. Their uneasy relationship is at an impasse: At the bars, they sip Scotch, and warily exchange sidelong glances. Feelings are a liability in Un Flic, so Delon’s heartsick detective always looks vaguely distracted, his eyes betraying the character’s sadness. At the end, his partner fidgets while Edouard, trapped in his own head, drives down the Champs-Élysées. The other cop knows he can’t do anything for Edouard, except maybe offer a stick of gum. Un Flic‘s Paris is purgatory; the city’s silvery-blue, halogen-lit miasma is a fact of life.

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BIZARRE LOVE TRIANGLE

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic (1972) begins on a stormy day in a seaside town as a gang of crooks is about to rob a bank. The leader of the group is Simon (Richard Crenna), whose friend, Coleman (Alain Delon), is the police commissioner. Coleman knows Simon as the owner of a nightclub where he likes to smoke, tickle the ivories, and make eyes at Simon’s girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), with whom he is having an affair. Melville’s tense final film follows the two men as their worlds collide, culminating in a nail-biting drug heist. Catch it in a new 35mm print with a new translation at Film Forum.

April 19-25, 1:10, 3:10, 5:10, 7:10 & 9:10 p.m., 2013

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Perfect, Placid, Mad: Deneuve’s Unraveling, 50 years Later

The first film in English for both director Roman Polanski and star Catherine Deneuve, the still-terrifying Repulsion renders language and explanation nearly superfluous. As Carol, a beautician sinking into glacial, homicidal schizophrenia, the actress speaks just a few lines, most barely above a whisper. Only his second movie, after the taut love-triangle drama Knife in the Water (1962), Polanski’s gripping study of a ravaged mind hints at, without excessively analyzing, the origins of its beautiful blond heroine’s unraveling.

That plunge into madness marks the beginning of a roughly decade-long period in which Deneuve would cultivate one of the most enduring aspects of her persona: the exquisite blank slate, often defiled, onto whom viewers could assign all sorts of psychosexual perversions—a type further explored in her films with Luis Buñuel and Marco Ferreri. Deneuve (who turned 69 last week) was not quite 22 when Repulsion opened in the U.S. in October 1965; only a year earlier, the actress had become an international star playing a jeune fille in pastel cardigans and hair ribbons in Jacques Demy’s somber, all-sung musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Those lollipop-hued ensembles would be shucked for the blood-smeared nightie Carol wears in Polanski’s monochrome nightmare.

Repulsion, which Polanski co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, opens with an extreme close-up of an eyeball, the screen filled with sclera. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal the placid, flawless, yet slightly deranged visage of Carol; it is through her unhinged point of view that the spectator identifies. Of Carol’s biography, we learn little: She lives with her older sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), in a two-bedroom apartment in London, though the siblings were raised in Brussels. Near a pile of Francophone pop culture—an Édith Piaf LP, a copy of Marie Claire—sits a framed family portrait. First lingered on about 30 minutes into the film and then again as its final image, the snapshot depicts Carol as a pubescent, angrily looking to the left in three-quarters profile.

Despite this freighted photo, the etiology of Carol’s mental illness—did she suffer sexual or other forms of unspeakable abuse at the hands of a relative as a child? Were the early signs of her dissociative tendencies simply ignored?—is never laid out,
contra the Freud-heavy epilogue of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). What makes Repulsion still so potent nearly 50 years later is its unremitting focus on the grotesqueries of the present, no matter how seemingly banal, like the sights and sounds that will make Carol’s surface porcelain perfection shatter into millions of jagged shards.

For Carol, the horror begins at home: Repulsion is the inaugural installment of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” a rich corpus that mines the pathologies inherent in big-city dwellings, no matter how posh. Manhattan’s Dakota doubles as the perfect Upper West Side branch of Satan’s church in Rosemary’s Baby (1968 ); the titular new leaseholder of the Paris flat in The Tenant (1976), played by Polanski himself, finds a human tooth in the walls. (This threesome could be extended to a tetralogy if you count last year’s Brooklyn Heights–brownstone–set Carnage.)

The Kensington rental that Carol shares with Helen, at first a cocoon where the former kicks off her heels after a trying day of applying Revlon products and cutting cuticles, quickly becomes center stage for her proliferating delusions. Disgusted after finding the straight-edge razor of her sister’s boyfriend—a leering married man named Michael (Ian Hendry)—in her water glass on the shelf above the bathroom sink, Carol later lies frozen in bed after being awakened by Helen’s orgasmic moans on the other side of the wall.

Left alone in the apartment after Helen and Michael take off for a holiday in Italy, Carol becomes more deeply estranged from reality; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s frequent use of a wide-angle lens emphasizes just how isolated she is in her own home. Her sex panic manifests itself in hallucinations of nightly rapes, her screams muted by the cacophony of menacing sounds within and without: constantly ticking clocks, ringing phones, and clanging convent bells. (One can’t help but think of the carriage bells in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour from 1967, cues that signal the Byzantine, masochistic sexual fantasies of Deneuve’s cosseted Parisian housewife Séverine.) Carol is powerless to fend off the phantom attacker, but not the real men who enter her lodging, sometimes by force: She bludgeons a pathetic suitor and slashes the wolfish landlord. Discovering the corpses after returning home from vacation, Helen will make noises nearly identical to her cries while climaxing. Our exit from the film, echoing our entrance, lands us in an abyss as boundless as the one that has swallowed Carol whole.

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Beloved

Writer-director Christophe Honoré revisits the musical—the genre of his biggest stateside hit, Love Songs (2007)—in Beloved, a sprawling mess of multiple romantic triangles in which all the angles are obtuse. Era-spanning (the film opens in 1963 and closes in 2007) and globe-hopping (scenes take place in Paris, Prague, London, and Montreal), Beloved boils down to the love lives of two women: Madeleine (played in her youth by Love Songs alum Ludivine Sagnier and in her prime by Catherine Deneuve) and her daughter, Vera (Honoré regular Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life offspring). “If it weren’t for those Roger Vivier pumps, Mom would never have become a whore,” Vera proudly recalls of her mother’s early part-time profession in voiceover, freelance work that led to her parents’ initial meeting. The remark typifies the film’s lazy, dumb nostalgia and lands with the same thud as most of the songs’ lyrics (a typical line: “London calling—but who I can’t say”). Honoré saves his worst decisions for Beloved‘s second half, as Vera, unable to shake her ex Clément (Louis Garrel, whose now-beyond-unbearable presence is mandatory in all of the director’s films), falls for the gay Henderson (Paul Schneider)—a masochistic arrangement that culminates in jaw-dropping 9/11-sploitation.

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The Young Girls of Rochefort

Dir. Jacques Demy (1967) Demy’s transcendent American-musical homage stars real-life sisters Françoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve as twins who dream of ditching the port town of the title for artistic glory in Paris. Gene Kelly, still foxy in his mid-50s, appears to descend from heaven, believably stirring romantic yearning in Dorléac, an actress 30 years his junior.

Sun., July 22, 8:15 p.m., 2012

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Donkey Skin

Dir. Jacques Demy (1970) Based on a popular 17th-century fable by Charles Perrault, Demy’s third musical with Catherine Deneuve is unquestionably his most perverse: A widowed king (Jean Marais) wishes to marry his daughter (Deneuve, who also plays the recently deceased queen).

Fri., June 29, 8:30 p.m., 2012