American film critic John Simon once noted that the audience at the Paris premiere of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg wept and the critics were ecstatic. He thought it would have made more sense the other way round. Simon was able to resist the charms of Jacques Demy’s film, but it has become a much-loved classic. The world is full of genuine romantics.
The middle film in a trilogy
It’s been sometimes said that this is the middle film in a trilogy by Demy, and it does have a lot in common with the director’s first film, Lola (1961). Although shot in black-and-white, Lola had plenty of color and seemed to be inspired by Hollywood musicals. At least one of the characters, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), appears in Umbrellas as well. The music was also written by Michel Legrand. But Umbrellas became Demy’s most famous film, one that would have the theorists talking about a new era of poetic realism inspired by Hollywood musicals. It was shot in color (the quality was inferior though and the film was subsequently restored for future audiences) and production designer Bernard Evein created magnificent sets for this purpose. All of the film’s dialogue is sung, and that takes some time getting used to. I love musicals, but I have to confess that there are times in this film where I wish the characters would simply talk, not sing, to each other. However, obstacles are overcome and the quality of the work is convincing enough.
The story is simple. It begins in 1957 with two young lovers, Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), meeting in Paris. They are madly in love and begin to plan for the future, even though Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) is less than impressed. Sadly, Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War and after a night of lovemaking Geneviève is left behind. Then she realizes that she’s pregnant and after much persuasion she marries Cassard. When Guy returns to France in 1959, he becomes one of those veterans who have lost the things that mattered, but a happy future beckons nonetheless.
Unforgettable final sequence
Major spoilers ahead. There is tragedy in this story, but it’s not as simple as that. The lovers end up living their lives without each other, but it is not necessarily such a bad thing. Who knows if they really were compatible? In the end, we still see two reasonably happy, successful marriages that have produced children. The final sequence is unforgettable, as the two leads meet by chance at a gas station, exchange a few words and then go back to their families as the snow falls and Legrand’s highly memorable music reaches a climax.
His score is one important reason why this film works. Its beautiful themes truly heighten the dramatic values of certain sequences, and even though you may grow a little restless with the way everything is sung, there is no way that it will feel like the whole thing is a cheat, that it’s phony. Everyone gives dedicated performances (especially Deneuve who became an international star) and the singing is very nice.
The film is best appreciated in a theater where you will be overwhelmed by the colors and immersed in Legrand’s score. In other situations, it could make you wonder what the fuss is about.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg 1964-France. 91 min. Color. Produced by Mag Bodard. Written and directed by Jacques Demy. Cinematography: Jean Rabier. Songs: Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy. Production Design: Bernard Evein. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Geneviève Emery), Nino Castelnuovo (Guy Foucher), Anne Vernon (Madame Emery), Marc Michel, Ellen Farnen.
Trivia: Original title: Les parapluises de Cherbourg. Followed by The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).
Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “The preparation truly counted for half of the film. It was a film that existed before it was even shot. I remember that when we heard the music, we were all incredibly moved, even though there were no images yet. Jacques was very demanding but also very shy, and he liked to laugh. I recognized myself completely in his way of working. The making of the film was pretty nonsensical and I found that very attractive: everything seemed extraordinary. And I think that I felt that he regarded me as indispensable. I realized that cinema had the potential to be like that: meetings between people who want to do very unusual things.” (Deneuve, Film Comment)