World Cinema Wednesday: The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
A delightfully deceptive confection from writer-director Jacques Demy, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg has almost everything in place to make it an undeniable masterpiece. Indeed, many others view it that way. It’s a tale of young love and life-altering choices, with every line of dialogue sung rather than just spoken, set against a technicolour backdrop of late ’50s / early ’60s France.
Catherine Deneuve is Geneviève, a young woman who spends her time helping out in the umbrella store owned by her mother (played by Anne Vernon) and looking forward to romantic time she gets to spend with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). The two are distraught when Guy is drafted into the army, although they also seem determined that their love will stand this difficult test. Enter a charming, rich, young jewel merchant named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). He could be the solution to problems that plague both Geneviève and her mother, but the former is struggling to realign her focus away from a planned shared life with Guy.
From the young leads to the set design, every aspect of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is absolutely gorgeous. Even the musical score throughout the movie is gorgeous. I’d be tempted to say that any scene, or even screenshot, from this movie could be placed in a dictionary alongside a definition of the word, you may have already guessed it, gorgeous.
As for the acting from all involved, it’s hard to fault. Every line may be delivered in song, but the performances remain surprisingly earnest and beautiful. If you can watch this and have any doubts about the sheer star quality of Deneuve, in particular, then I would have to seriously question your senses and/or sanity. I’ve no doubt that this was all helped immensely by Demy, who weaves everything together into a tapestry that depicts potentially bleak scenes in a variety of bright, vibrant colours.
The only major omission is a sense of . . . . . . . . . . . something. It’s hard to really pinpoint it. I understand what Demy is doing here, creating a traditional musical world that houses characters going through distinctly non-musical life experiences, but that doesn’t mean that the film has to be quite as dour and cynical as Demy makes it. Some people see the juxtaposition as very much a part of what makes this so special. I can’t help but think, to paraphrase a popular musical number, that just a spoonful of sugar would have helped the medicine go down a lot easier.
I would still put this forward as essential viewing. It’s almost a masterpiece to me (hence my using that word twice in the same review), and many others consider it an outright classic. Experimental cinema is rarely so technically skilled and beautiful. Make your own mind up about it.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: JACQUES DEMY
STARS: CATHERINE DENEUVE, NINO CASTELNUOVO, ANNE VERNON, MARC MICHEL, ELLEN FARNER
RUNTIME: 91 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: FRANCE, WEST GERMANY