Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Arthur Freed: names synonymous with the movie musical. Missing from this standard list is a key contributor to the form, the French director Jacques Demy. Perhaps part of the reason for his widespread unfamiliarity, even to those who adore the genre, is that Demy only directed a handful of musicals in his entire career. It’s also likely that the musical is simply thought of as an American type of movie, and therefore, “foreign” practitioners don’t quite warrant similar attention. In either case, Demy did amplify the genre with at least two major works, one of them the recipient of the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which also received four Academy Award nominations (at least some American love there), is not just an exceptional musical, it’s a genuine advancement in the genre. With every line of dialogue sung, it’s essentially operatic, but its distinctly cinematic features are what make it a truly great movie.
Divided into three parts (The Departure, The Absence, The Return), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve), who works in her mother’s umbrella store — the title of the film — and is in love with the 20-year-old Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic. Like many young lovers in the movies, they have their obstacles, her mother’s disapproval being the first one. But it gets worse. Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) is heavily in debt and Guy is soon drafted to the war in Algeria, where he’ll be for 2 years. Madame Emery finds her solution when she sells some jewelry to gem-dealer Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). That brings in enough money for now. What’s more, Madame Emery is quite taken by Roland, and while she herself appears smitten, it’s actually her daughter she has in mind. Roland is handsome, has money, seems to have a good head on his shoulders, plus, unlike Guy, he’s there. When Geneviève goes some time without hearing from Guy, it’s decided that she would indeed be better off marrying Roland, even if she is with Guy’s child. Upon his return, Guy discovers the scenario played out in his absence, but he too reluctantly moves on, marrying Madeleine (Ellen Farner), a young woman who had been caring for his ailing, now departed, godmother. In the end, an epilogue years later finds Geneviève and Guy briefly reunited. Having gone their separate ways, each with a new mate, each now with a child, their lives are not at all what they envisioned a few short years ago. Is there still a love there, or has time and the harsh realities of life dissipated what once was?
Sadness prevails throughout The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the ending doesn’t quite fit that term. It’s certainly not happy, but it’s not really sad. Despite the fanciful whimsy inherent in a film that is wall-to-wall music and singing, this conclusion is something closer to a contented reality. This is the true course of love: at times tragic, at times joyful, but more than anything, utterly unpredictable and uncontrollable. The film also alludes to realistic themes of wartime separation and heartbreak, the struggles of fidelity in the face of challenging truths, and familial and economic burdens.
Still, with Michel Legrand’s astonishing score, covering all the musical bases, from enchanting romanticism to jazzy swing to somber melancholia, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg can’t help but be delightful. Add Jean Rabier’s Eastmancolor cinematography, which color-coordinates interior spaces, clothing, and seasonal shifts, and the film is simply a spectacular sensory achievement. The upcoming Criterion Collection transfer of the film, set for a July 22 release, is sure to be a stunning audio/visual treat.
On the surface, the concept of having the characters sing each and every phrase — the mundane and the genuinely lyrical — does seem a bit gimmicky. Yet not only does it work and work well, it works quickly. Early in the film, one of Guy’s coworkers puts down opera: “All that singing gives me a pain. I like movies better.” It’s amusing because already we’ve seen what all that singing is going to be like here, and far from being an off-putting experience, set within Demy’s gloriously lush world, it’s instantly evident that this is going to be something special, a musical unlike any other. It wouldn’t be the type of film that deconstructs the musical in some self-conscious way, like, say, Godard’s genre experimentation around the same time. This was, in its own way, a comfortable fit into the classical movie musical model.
It’s somewhat difficult to judge the performances here because they’re not necessarily dramatic in the conventional sense, but each of the key players does a fine job. If anyone though, it’s Catherine Deneuve who stands out, and indeed does convey the most effective emotional range. Frankly, she is also stunning to behold. Around 20 at the time, Deneuve is captivating, and with this film, her star was firmly set to rise. With her radically different turn in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion the next year, and her equally remarkable performance in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour in 1967, Deneuve had — and still has — considerable talent to go along with that beauty.
Directly following The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, beginning with another (even better?) musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, again with Deneuve and this time featuring the venerable Gene Kelly, Jacques Demy took on ever more diverse projects, including two personal favorites, Model Shop and Donkey Skin. Yet somehow, despite even the efforts of his wife and fellow filmmaker, Agnès Varda, he didn’t quite achieve the stature of other New Wave icons such as Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rivette, and others. The aforementioned Criterion disc, in which The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of six of his films included in a set, will hopefully help rectify that oversight.
— Jeremy Carr