Director's Widow Lovingly Restores 'Young Girls of Rochefort'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bloom has returned to the late Jacques Demy's 1967 French musical "The Young Girls of Rochefort," thanks to the loving efforts of his widow, the acclaimed French director Agnes Varda.

Just as Varda restored Demy's Oscar-nominated 1964 classic musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" a few years ago, she painstakingly revived Demy's cotton-candy romance starring Catherine Deneuve, her late sister Francoise Dorleac, Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, Grover Dale and Danielle Darrieux.

"It's fresh," says Varda of the film, which like "Cherbourg" features the haunting music of Michel Legrand. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday.

"It's juvenile. It has that quality of youth and love. It's like daring to be happy. Nowadays for sure that's not the style, but maybe it's good to remember that some people wanted to express joy. He didn't make always funny and joyful films, but he wanted that."

"Rochefort," which was filmed on Eastman color, had faded badly over the past three decades. "We even had a 70mm print," says Varda, who has directed such films as "Cleo From 5 to 7," "Le Bonheur" and "Vagabond."

"The sound was beautiful and it was sharp, but it was beige and pink. So we made a new negative."

Varda found a fine-grain protection print that was only partially faded. "Then I had to work going through it digitally," she says. "I had to work on it because the director of photography was dead and the set designer was not in good shape."

Because Varda had been present during the production and even shot 16mm footage, which she incorporated into her 1992 documentary, "The Young Girls Turn 25," she remembered the beautiful pinks, blues and purples that dominated the film's palate.

"There were maybe 800 shots [in the film,]" she says. "I'd say, 'Less red. Be careful of the skin.' We refilmed a new Eastman color negative. The stuff today is of better quality."

In "Rochefort," Deneuve and Dorleac play fraternal twins who live in the port town of the film's title, where they give music and dancing lessons and dream of love and great musical careers in Paris.

Their mother (Danielle Darrieux), who runs a cafe in the town square, still pines for her former lover (Michel Piccoli) and father of her 10-year-old son. She didn't want to marry him because his last name was Dame and she didn't want to be known as Madame Dame.

Unbeknownst to her, Dame has just opened a music store in Rochefort that is frequented by Dorleac. Chakiris and Dale play two buddies, boat and motorcycle salesmen, who arrive in town with a festival and are quickly befriended by Darrieux and her daughters. After their girlfriends leave, they convince the twins to put on a stage act and in return take them to Paris. Gene Kelly is an American concert pianist and friend of Dame's who accidentally meets Dorleac on the streets and both immediately fall in love.

Though "Rochefort" was a hit in France, it didn't perform well in America. "They tried releasing it here in an English version, which really didn't work," says Chakiris, who won an Oscar for 1961's "West Side Story."

"I remember Gene and I were out at Warner Bros. dubbing the stuff. I love this film in French. I think it's so charming and beautiful to look at, and the girls were gorgeous. I thought the art direction was really wonderful. Jacques Demy had a very exact image of what he wanted in all departments. He was very, very talented."

Chakiris met with Demy, who died in 1990, and Legrand in Los Angeles in 1965 to discuss the film. "They didn't have a script for me, but they played the entire score," he recalls.

"I was with William Morris at the time and the lady who was my manager felt that I shouldn't do the movie. They didn't think it was a big enough sort of thing for me to do, but I liked the sound of it myself, so I chose to go ahead and do it. I just think it's a film that holds up despite the fact that it's 30 years old. It has such charm."

Dale, an award-winning choreographer and director and publisher and senior editor of Dance and Fitness magazine, didn't even audition for his part.

"It was one of those dream things that happened," says Dale. "It was one of those things that dropped in your lap."

But he didn't realize it was in French. His agent just told him: " 'Get to New York immediately. You've got to get a passport. You are going to co-star with Gene Kelly, Catherine Deneuve and George Chakiris in a musical.' My jaw is dropping, and I was on the plane that night at 7. I opened the script and it's all in French. I said, 'Oh no. They made a mistake.' I had no idea that it was going to be shot in French!"

All the American performers learned their lines by rote and were later dubbed in, though in some instances Kelly's voice is heard in the film. Every performer's singing voice, save for Darrieux's, was also dubbed.

"I waited until someone's mouth stopped talking and I knew it was my turn," Dale says, laughing.

"I remember one day sitting in my chair and practicing my French," Chakiris adds. "Catherine was listening to me and she giggled in the sweetest way. My accent, I guess, it must have been funny."

Chakiris remembers Dorleac, who died in a car crash in 1967 at the age of 25, as one of the nicest people he'd ever met. "She was funny and charming," he recalls. "She was lovely. [Deneuve and Dorleac] were both warm. They had a wonderful sense of humor between the two of them."

"We had a great time," Dale says. "We lived in the hotel with the girls. I had some great shots of us just sitting around. We were so bonded."

Dale and Chakiris almost got the opportunity to dance with Kelly on screen. "Gene had arrived and saw George and I dancing and he said, 'I want to do a number with you guys in the movie,' " Dale recalls.

"For two days we rehearsed one of those going-down-the-street numbers with Gene Kelly. I was in heaven. But Jacques couldn't justify the three of us meeting because the whole plot is based on people not knowing each other."

Varda recalls the making of "Rochefort" as one of the happiest times of her life.

"On the shoot, Jacques was dressed like an actor in the film, with white pants," she says. "He was enjoying being a part of the thing. It was a beautiful time of our lives, to tell you the truth.

"I can be sad thinking of Jacques, but when I think of that film and the shooting, I smile all the time. I smile because I'm in the mood of that time. I have a feeling that Jacques would have loved for this film to be restored. He would have loved to have it reopen. It's a revival which is deserved."

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