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The international success of Jacques Demy’s 1964 chamber opera, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (revived here two years ago), gave the late writer-director a chance to work on a much grander scale his next time out. He devoted three years to The Young Girls of Rochefort, an intricate song-and-dance fable about love and art, sprinkled with affectionate homages to American screen musicals.
When Rochefort opened in 1967, reviewers pounced upon its undeniable flaws and scared audiences away. (I was the only person in the theater for an opening-week screening at the long-shuttered Playhouse on 15th Street NW.) While programming a French New Wave retrospective for the National Gallery of Art in the early ’90s, I discovered that no 35mm wide-screen print survived of what some consider Demy’s masterpiece. In 1996, the filmmaker’s widow, director Agnès Varda, whose feature Jacquot de Nantes (1991) chronicled and celebrated her husband’s life, supervised Rochefort’s restoration, complete with new English subtitles. She has also made a documentary about the musical, The Young Girls Turn 25, which has been shown in France.
Unlike its intensely hued, fatalistic predecessor, Rochefort bursts with pastel optimism. Awash in watermelon pinks, lemon yellows, mint greens, and powder blues, the movie appears to be set in a parallel universe (or an Easter basket) until one realizes that it was shot on location in and around the titular seaside town’s main square. Demy persuaded surrounding homeowners to have their shutters painted in sorbet tones by promising to repaint the houses after shooting ended. But when the film company was about to depart, the townspeople had come to enjoy living in a musical comedy environment so much that they chose to forgo the restorative paint jobs.
This anecdote of life imitating art mirrors Rochefort’s theme. As complex as a Mozart opera, its plot, compressed into a single holiday weekend, introduces a collection of characters obsessed with artistic visions and idealized romance. The Garnier twins, blond, aspiring dancer Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and titian-tressed, would-be composer Solange (Françoise Dorléac, Deneuve’s real-life sister, who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after production ended), want to run away to Paris to launch their careers. Their practical mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux, Max Ophüls’ sublime Madame de…) operates a chrome-and-glass snack bar and struggles to raise a young son, Boubou, the souvenir of her affair with a musician, Simon Dame. (She rejected his offer of marriage and banished him to Paris because she couldn’t bear the prospect of being called Madame Dame.) Yvonne does not know that Simon (Michel Piccoli) has returned to Rochefort, where he is visited by his American conservatory chum, concert pianist Andy Miller (Gene Kelly), whom Solange briefly meets and falls for, unaware that he’s her musical idol. Others passing through town include Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a young sailor whose painting The Feminine Ideal exactly resembles Delphine, and two freewheeling motorcycle salesmen from a traveling fair (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) and their fed-up girlfriends (Pamela Hart and Leslie North). And, in the screenplay’s oddest touch, a sadistic killer, who has hacked up a woman and stuffed the pieces into a wicker hamper, is on the loose.
Demy kicks off, quite literally, on the wrong foot with an extended dance sequence depicting the arrival of the fair roustabouts as the town awakens. Choreographer Norman Maen, the fly in the film’s meringue, combines recycled Jerome Robbins movements (which Chakiris had already executed in West Side Story) with an ungainly step apparently derived from the barnyard shuffle. Dale, Chakiris, and the rest of the dancers give their all, but Maen’s dire routines are beyond salvaging.
The movie recovers from this misbegotten prologue and gradually begins to cast a spell. You can feel it take flight in Demy’s crane shot that starts in the square and floats up to introduce the twins in their second-floor dance studio. Other magical momentsinterspersed with more patches of klutzy dancinginclude a lyrical montage of the principal characters articulating their emotions in leitmotif themes assigned them by composer Michael Legrand, fond allusions to On the Town and An American in Paris, and a sly closing shot reassuring us that the last remaining narrative threads are about to be happily tied.
Legrand’s jazz-inflected songs are livelier and more varied that his music for Cherbourg. Demy’s lyrics have charm, too, though Maxence repeats his pun about being “en perm’ à Nantes” so often that you want to slug him. The score is expertly performed by large orchestral and choral ensembles backing the nimble studio singers who dub all of the cast members except Darrieux.
One has to have more than a passing fondness for musical comedy and highly stylized filmmaking to enjoy Rochefort. Those who don’t are likely to regard the picture as an extended torture. When the Garnier twins don red-sequined gowns to perform at the fair, musical buffs will spot the reference to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and relish their bebop-flavored duet. Others will be unable to get past how clumsily Deneuve and Dorléac move. You know who you are. Proceed accordingly.
The opening shot of Permanent Midnight shows the movie’s protagonist, writer Jerry Stahl (Ben Stiller), shooting smack in a filthy toilet stall. Then the film’s title appears on the bathroom’s ceiling written in blood squirted from a syringe.
David Veloz’s film is based on Stahl’s 1995 memoir, an account of the author’s drug addiction and recovery. What distinguishes Stahl’s tale from innumerable junkie sagas is that, while his personal life was going into the toilet, he was making a killing writing for Moonlighting, thirtysomething, and other TV programs. Stahl, a contributor to Esquire, Playboy, and the Village Voice, has evolved a supercharged prose style that keeps his book zigzagging between hilarity and horror. His pulsatory language sustains interest in what is otherwise the same old fall-and-rise addict tap dance: You see, he had an emotionally draining youth, was driven to drugs by a combination of self-doubt and contempt for the schlock he cranked out, and finally managed to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter.
If you’ve seen one addiction movie, you’ve pretty well seen them all. Whatever the drugalcohol (The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses) or heroin (The Man With the Golden Arm, The Panic in Needle Park)the narrative assumes the same shape: getting hooked, attempts to clean up alternating with recidivism, death or resurrection. Stahl’s book and, to a lesser degree, the film version leaven this formula with caustic one-liners, which partially distract audiences from feeling the full weight of the author’s narcissism, sentimentality, and self-aggrandizement. His stylistic fusion of William Burroughs and Jerry Seinfeld is arresting but, finally, not very nourishing.
In Permanent Midnight’s framing story, Stahl, working in a fast-food joint as part of a drug rehab program, picks up Kitty, an attractive, blunt, recovering addict. They go off to a motel and, between bouts of exhausting erotic acrobatics (“I’ve never done this straight before,” Stahl confides), he recounts his life story: father’s suicide, mother’s breakdown, early literary success (a Pushcart Prize), sellout to television sitcoms, drugs, a marriage soured by his habit, his infant’s welfare imperiled while he’s out scoring, recovery.
Like many of the sitcoms Stahl used to write, Permanent Midnight is studded with self-hating Jewish zingers. As part of his outlaw mystique, Stahl wears black leather (rather heroic in Los Angeles temperatures), which he calls “Jewish leather, designed for humiliation.” In the midst of another sexual encounter, a stoned, blond neo-Nazi bellows, “I’m being fucked by a Jew!” Stahl offers “the Kosher joyride” to yet another lucky female. A little of this stuff goes a very long way, especially for Jewish women, who may want to anesthetize themselves before entering the theater.
Twice this summer, Stiller has demonstrated his aptitude for playing nerds. (He accomplished this task with such creepy verisimilitude in Your Friends & Neighbors that I wasn’t sure he was acting.) Although he gives himself over to impersonating Stahl, he’s not appositely cast as an existential junkie-stud. Admittedly, Stiller’s pasty, knobby, hunched-over frame and permanent five o’clock shadow are sufficiently addictlike, but why does he look the same in the scenes before he’s hooked? Like its literary source, Permanent Midnight smacks of self-mythologizing, a contrived attempt to hip a wimp.
Because the movie is designed as a tour de force for Stiller, the supporting roles are largely generic. As Stahl’s wife, plummy-voiced Elizabeth Hurley is affectlessly beautiful (and her decision to marry a guy who looks like the missing link between a giant rat and a miniature ape is something that could only transpire in Demy’s candy-colored Rochefort). As Kitty, ER’s Maria Bello exudes intelligence and street-smart glamour. For the umpteenth time, Fred Willard smirkingly portrays someone fatuous (a TV producer). Janeane Garofalo and Cheryl Ladd are confined to cameos, and Stahl himself turns up as a drug-clinic doctor. If you blink, you’ll miss Lainie Kazan’s single unbilled shot as Stahl’s crazed mother. Heaving her considerable bulk onto her husband’s coffin, Kazan once again amply embodies the coarse Jewish joke her career has become.
Veloz manages to keep this predictable material moving, often using jump cuts and quick dissolves to compress time. In one startling sequence, he finds a novel way to visualize narcotic nirvana. Stahl and a friend get high, literally and figuratively, in an unfinished room atop an office building. Then, like Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, they hurl themselves at the room’s shatterproof glass walls. In the midst of this frenzy, Veloz ingeniously cuts to an exterior helicopter shot, shifting perspective to make the men look like trapped, crazed insects.
Such creative flourishes, however, are rare. For much of Permanent Midnight, we’re forced to watch its grubby, gnomish protagonist tying off on toilet seats, sticking syringes in his arm or neck, and then waiting to see if the results will be euphoric or lethal. It’s ugly, all right, but is it art? CP