The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – dir Jacques Demy – 1964 – Trailer
Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t quite like anything else you’ll ever see (and that includes Demy’s loopier, messier musical follow-up The Young Girls of Rochefort). The first things that viewers notice about the film, and the last things that they would ever be likely to forget, are that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg unfolds in a rainbow of candy colors, and that every single line of dialogue is sung. It feels like a tribute to the glorious movie-ness of the movie musical, the heightened reality of all those sweet confections that the studios used to release so often, and viewers used to gobble up so eagerly. (At the top of the film, one gentleman ironically sings that he prefers movies to stage shows because all of the singing gives him a pain: a nod to Demy’s self-aware desire to make the movies sing again.) Yet while Umbrellas displays a reverence for Old Hollywood’s lavish musicals – which were the farthest thing from fashionable in 1964 – it uses their frothy look and feel to tell a story with a surprising level of grown up melancholy. As Roger Ebert puts it, “This style would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but Umbrellas is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all.” Unlike so many of our favorite movie musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg understands that a passionate kiss and a glorious swell of music does not necessarily guarantee happily ever after.
Like the first scenes of On the Town, in which a construction worker sings between yawns as he begins his work day, the first scenes of Umbrellas are quick to establish a reality in which singing is the norm. (It begins with mechanics singing about their work at a service station.) But the film distinguishes itself from movie musicals past with its uncommon willingness to take the realities of life and love head on: instead of sharing an ethereal dance together, young lovers Geneviève (a stunningly lovely Catherine Deneuve, her singing voice dubbed by Danielle Licari) and Guy (Italian actor Nino Castelnuovo, dubbed by José Bartel) fall into bed together on his last night before he begins his military service, and Geneviève is later forced to face the prospect of single motherhood. Neither the dominance of the music nor the film’s high, playful visual style undercuts the drama or pushes the film into the realm of parody. When Geneviève gives a cry of “Mama!” after her final meeting with Guy, the heartbreak in her voice hits hard, and the sight of her dressed in white, in a white room as snow falls, is an evocative image of cool longing. Umbrellas knowingly allows for the possibility that life will not give these characters what they think they want, that they might always feel pangs of sadness and uncertainty about the decisions that will define them.
Yet one of the charms of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it refuses to devolve into an easy trajectory of misery just as strongly as it refuses the typical happy ending of most movie musicals. When other men and women enter the lives of Geneviève and Guy, they are not cruel or obviously ill-matched. On the contrary, they are noble, likable people, something that may be especially important in the case of Genevieve’s new suitor Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, dubbed by Georges Blaness), who could have become an obvious villain. And even when times are hardest, Geneviève and her mother (Anne Vernon, dubbed by Christiane Legrand) face life with a kind of matter-of-fact perseverance and even joy. You have to smile when the visibly pregnant Geneviève sings that she has no intention of ruining her life – no common sentiment for an unwed, pregnant woman to conjure in 1964.
Later attempts to infuse the tropes of Old Hollywood musicals with a dash of realism haven’t gelled with the same unlikely success as Demy’s touching, lingering Umbrellas. Consider Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, where Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli’s naturalistic acting is perhaps too incongruous with the film’s intentionally artificial-looking sets. The Onion’s Keith Phipps contends that “Umbrellas is one of those movies in which the material and the execution appear to merge seamlessly to make both a one-of-a-kind film and the sort of stylistic dead-end that demands immediate enclosure in a time capsule,” and with reluctance, I must admit that the film’s success as a bold experiment is unlikely to be duplicated. But that’s all the more reason to cherish it in all its unique, haunting glory.