The Umbrellas of Cherbourg May 11, 2017
Jacques Demy’s musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is all song and color, a whirlwind of Technicolor artifice, storybook dreaminess, and shining theatrics. It’s optically ravishing and aurally tuneful, as any feature of the genre should be. But it’s also beautifully poignant, a champion (like last year’s fizzy La La Land) of the belief that feel-good enthusiasm is good and fine but carefully fashioned bittersweetness is even better.
It was a bold experiment in 1964 and continues to thrill. Conceived years after musical maestros Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen were seemingly finished outdoing themselves, it is a gorgeous representation of Demy’s genius. Though considered a major player in the French New Wave, a cinematic period which saw young iconoclasts rejecting the norms of filmmaking, Demy doesn’t much resemble his literary peers. Unlike Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, his more clinical counterparts, sentimentality is more his forte than complete silver screen subversion.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a true-blue homage to the days when Gene Kelly and Betty Grable were king and queen. But it differs in that it is entirely sung (dialogue is conventional but melodically delivered), is decidedly melancholy, and is unabashedly modern, touching upon topics usually ignored by prototypical MGM product, like war, premarital sex, unwanted pregnancy, and choosing a comfortable life over true love.
The colors are bright and chirpy, as shrill as a bell, and the composition is glossy, fashion-magazine impeccable. Years after viewing, one might even remember the movie as a splashy farce, considering it’s at its most engaging when we’re still getting used to the pigmentation and when we’re still in the process of devouring the ecstatic soundtrack. Images of attractive young people in love, kissing and embracing in clubs and alleys and theaters, might proliferate.
But The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is so indelible because of its pathos. It could be ingested as creative pop art which just so happens to stick rather than float away. But Demy isn’t purely paying tribute to the artists who obviously made an impression on him in his youth. He’s taking their achievements and amplifying them to near operatic levels, additionally undermining various traditions by transforming the most genre-defining asset – song – and making it a mundanity and not a speciality. The usually avoided real-life issues suddenly become as much a part of the ambience as sticky sweet coloring. It’s as old-fashioned as it is boundary-pushing, combining the new and the old to craft something ageless.
It stars Catherine Deneuve — in a role which would turn her into an international sensation at 20 years old — as Geneviève, a stunning 17-year-old smitten with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a handsome mechanic. Both natives of the minuscule Cherbourg, Geneviève and Guy want nothing more than to get married and start a family. They already plan to name their first child “Françoise.”
But unfortunate circumstances are enough to get in the way of their love for one another. Perhaps not out of the blue — The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is set in 1958, a time shaded by the Algerian War — Guy is drafted for two years. To make matters worse, Geneviève becomes pregnant shortly before he leaves, a strict no no in ‘50s France.
Nine months go by, and Geneviève only receives one letter from her lover, causing her to question just how worth it is to wait for a man she’s not so sure will still love her when he comes back. This entices her to consider the proposal made by Roland Cossard (Marc Michel), a wealthy 30-something who saves Geneviève’s mother’s (Anne Vernon) umbrella shop from dire financial straits.
Maybe The Umbrellas of Cherbourg doesn’t end the way it’s supposed to; maybe Geneviève should have waited for Guy to return and exemplify the romantic notion that absence really can make the heart go fonder.
Demy takes the road less traveled, and that road, for all intents and purposes, is dreary. And yet it’s appropriately dreary: Demy tugs the heartstrings delicately, and Michel Legrand’s iconic score is lovingly wistful when need be. It’s sorrowful but not forcibly so, and the disparity between the film’s Crayola colors and its inherently lugubrious storyline makes it a great deal more remarkable than if it were simply saccharine.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was photographically restored in 2004, an idea brought forth by Demy and his equally acclaimed filmmaker wife, Agnès Varda. As the film was shot on Eastman negative stock, the colors faded so quickly that there came a point during which the original rolls became virtually unusable. After Demy died, in 1990, Varda kickstarted a project which saw her using black and white prints of the film to create a new color negative. The results are sensational.
Five decades after its original release, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as crisp, as eye-poppingly sumptuous as ever. One can imagine how awe-struck audiences attending its original screening at the Cannes Film Festival must have been upon viewing. Because it is so dreamy, so pink. It’s everything you could ever want from an escapist, fantastical musical. But it’s also so much more than