UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG puts other musicals to shame. When I read that every word of dialogue was sung I didn’t believe it. Yet sure enough, this film ditches the dull dialogue in favor of a screenplay sung in its entirety. For a film that appears on the surface to be a mere piece of cinematic fluff, UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG consciously parodies classic American musicals and subsequently pulls inspiration from Pop Art.
A hallmark of the French New Wave movement is the parodying of classic American films. The object of director Jacques Demy’s loving ridicule is the musical. The typical Hollywood musical that showcases vamped musical numbers set on glitzy studio sound stages. An obvious inspiration for UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is the landmark SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). The French, particularly during the New Wave film movement, have a different understanding of parody. Yes, they use it to poke fun at the American ideals adored by audiences, but its intention is to get at something deeper despite its seemingly superficial coating.
The first visual cue that this film is slated to deviate from its American counterpart is the opening credits. Hollywood filmmakers often use rain to signal a bad omen. Shooting the opening scene from the point of view of raindrops, the audience is forced into the role of the critical viewer, imposing themselves on the characters of the story. The story feels fairly familiar at first, but as the audience becomes accustomed to hearing all the dialogue sung, a new kind of reality seeps in.
Jacques Demy seems to employ the theories of Marshall McLuhan from his novel, “The Medium is the Massage.” McLuhan theorized that the Information Age had replaced human contact with an electronic substitute. He believed the different modes of television, radio, etc. had created a form of disconnect in human beings causing them to have altered relationships with their environment. Pop music and Pop Art dominated media in the early 60s. From what began with Elvis in the late 50s, pop culture churned out icons and celebrities at an unprecedented rate. Basically, The Beatles and Andy Warhol became the new powerhouses in the historical narrative. Eras would be defined through art and music more so than political markers.
UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG uses the universal channel of music and art to connect to the audience. This mode is exaggerated through repetition, similar to Andy Warhol’s silkscreen series, in order to desensitize the audience. The story begins with your typical tale of two star-crossed lovers and as the story unfolds their lust and love for each other fizzles out. This emotion is mirrored in the singing of the dialogue. The energy and finesse in their voices slowly declines, ultimately dying out at the end of the film. The audience now feels a sense of disconnect from the very same media that brought it together.
Andy Warhol’s use of cheery color was quite deceiving. Beneath the bright hues was some pretty heavy stuff. His iconic Marilyn series represented the gradual decline and destruction of her life at the hands of her celebrity. In a similar vein, UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG juxtaposes bright pops of color in the costumes and set design (representing happiness), with a melancholy narrative. The French takes no issue infusing risqué material into the narrative, which is usually done in a playful manner.
UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG cements its status as a child of the French New Wave with the deadpan line, “people only die of love in the movies.” This statement, dripping with irony, reaffirms the intentional disconnect of UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG from the medium of film. The self-reference illustrates the absurdity of film as a form of reality. UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG does not pretend to be accurate or real, it instead extracts, exaggerates and exploits our modern modes of communication. This spectacle is best described by McLuhan, “there is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation.”