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CLASSICS: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

August 27, 2019



written by: Jacques Demy
produced by: Mag Bodard
directed by: Jacques Demy
rated: unrated
runtime: 92 min.
release date: February 19, 1964 (France), December 16, 1964 (U.S.)

“People only die of love in movies.”


While not officially part of the French New Wave—that group of five film critics turned filmmakers who changed the language of cinema in the late 50s and early 60s—Jacques Demy certainly operated in that vein. His love of technicolor Hollywood classics doesn’t seem to mesh well with the stark emotional intimacy of the French New Wave, but he managed to straddle that line throughout his career, challenging the tight strictures of the movement.


Demy’s third feature film, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” is an achingly beautiful love story, right at home alongside the works of Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and others, were it not for the fact that everyone in the film sings every single line of dialogue. Demy embraces both the emotional openness of the French New Wave and the hyper-stylized films of his forebears, particularly Cocteau. He also can’t help but take inspiration from the candy-colored Technicolor spectacles like “The Red Shoes,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
In the role that made her a star, the positively luminescent Catherine Deneuve plays Geneviève, the daughter of Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), owner of the titular shop. The love of Geneviève’s life is Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic with big dreams of one day opening his own American-style gas station in Cherbourg. Madame Emery doesn’t take to Guy, thinking him low status for her daughter. Her hardened heart doesn’t understand love, and thinking solely in practical terms, she encourages her daughter toward a suitor like the wealthy jewel merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel).
On the night Guy discovers he has been drafted for his mandatory military service in Algeria, he and Geneviève spend the night together. Geneviève soon discovers she’s pregnant with Guy’s child, all the more reason for her mother to nudge her toward Cassard. Geneviève makes her decision and Guy eventually returns from the battlefront, and the two are set on a collision course with their true destinies I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the kind of musical where the camera is the only thing doing elaborately choreographed movements. With the sound off, you might not think this was a musical at all. No one breaks out in spontaneous dance, and although the characters are singing, they’re always in close proximity to one another. It’s staged like a serious non-musical film, adding to Demy’s aesthetic of both embracing and rejecting the tenets of the New Wave.
A college professor of mine once said stated that a musical is nothing more that a drama with hugely theatrical emotion. The emotions have gotten so big for the characters that they can’t help but break out in song. This subverts that notion by taking it to a literal extreme, making a musical that never really becomes a Musical. The lack of choreographed dances and solo performance numbers is bound to turn off some viewers, but thankfully Demy gave us one of the most spectacular examples of that genre three years later with “The Young Girls of Rochefort.”
Of course, the film’s influence can be felt in every nook and cranny of the entertainment world since its release. It was spoofed just one year later in Richard Lester’s “The Knack… and How to Get It.” Filmmaker Wes Anderson’s intricate mise en scène owes so much to the color coordinated look of this film’s costume and production design. Musician Björk paid homage in a Spike Jonze directed music video, and later appeared in Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” a musical not unlike this one. Even a recent film like Damien Chazelle’s beloved musical “La La Land” cribs heavily from the look of “Umbrellas..” while still embracing the big, showstopping musical numbers.
Along with François Truffaut, Demy was enamored with the creating—to crib from the modern parlance—shared cinematic universes. Marc Michel‘s Roland Cassard had appeared in Demy’s 1960 debut feature film “Lola,” and Demy’s subsequent films “Model Shop” and “Young Girls of Rochefort” make countless reference to people and places in “Umbrellas…” Criterion put out an assemblage of his films from this time and it’s one of the essential sets to own among that collection.
It’s difficult reviewing a number of films from the Criterion Collection in a row, because every film in the collection is good-to-great. There are some, like “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” that are absolute masterpieces of genre filmmaking. The sort of one-of-a-kind films to which endless homage has been paid, yet no one’s dared to go full bore the way Demy does. Perhaps he just did it too perfectly.

RATING: ****


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