Before Les Miserables gave theatre and film audiences a tale told entirely through song; before Wes Anderson learned that both joy and sadness could be painted in bright colours; before Michel Legrand wrote “The Windmills of Your Mind”; before Catherine Deneuve was the international face of French cinema, Jacques Demy made a beautiful musical masterpiece called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Set in the town of Cherbourg in the 1950s, Umbrellas opens with the blossoming relationship of Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), who works in her strict mother’s umbrella shop, and Guy (Nino Castelnuouvo), a mechanic who lives with and looks after his sickly aunt with the help of the quiet nurse Madeleine (Ellen Farner). Out of the blue, Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War, but that does not prevent him from spending one final evening with Genevieve, when they pledge their undying love for each other. While he’s away, however, Genevieve is faced with several difficult choices, and Guy returns from the war to find life in Cherbourg is not the way he left it…
Though many French New Wave directors of the time, such as Godard and Melville, showed some appreciation of the influence American cinema had on their work and culture, Demy was arguably the most unabashedly honest about it. Every frame of Umbrellas is lovingly painted in the saturated colours of 50’s Hollywood musicals, and the dynamic close-ups and symmetrical compositions are reminiscent of the “Academy Ratio”, the film format in which all pre-50’s Hollywood movies were shot.
Michel Legrand’s beautifully simple score is as grand as anything by Rodgers-Hammerstein, but contains enough carefully placed accidentals that it avoids the latter’s predictability, and creates a musical uneasiness which reflects the uneasiness of the film.
Nino Castelnuovo, for whom Umbrellas was his most famous role, makes for a charming leading man, but also displays considerable range in a role that runs the gamut from glee to heartbreak. The same can be said for Catherine Deneuve, whose breakthrough role in this film presented to the world a singular presence and allure that has resulted in one of the most significant careers in film history.
However, Demy’s musical is more than the sum of its parts, and what prevents it from being pure, sentimental homage is its use of the heightened reality and emotions of the classic Hollywood style to tell a decidedly non-Hollywood story. The film delicately tiptoes between the melodramatic and the realist, providing melodrama by disguising cliché or convenient plot developments beneath its sung-through script, and realism by refusing to offer the romantic story the audience wants to see and instead providing a conclusion grounded in realism that is as inevitable as it is moving.
Though not the most lost lavish or technically dazzling musical ever made, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is undoubtedly one of the most personal in its style, universal in its experience, and powerful in its emotion, not in a way that you’d expect, but certainly in a way you’re not likely to forget.
* * * * * (Great Movie)
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