Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The (1964)
Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon
Plot: A young girl separated from her lover by war faces a life altering decision.
Genre: Drama / Musical / Romance
Awards: Won Palme d'Or, Technical Grand Prize, OCIC Award (Cannes). Nom. for 5 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Score, Best Original Song.
Rating: PG for some mature themes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
“Guy, I love you. You smell of gasoline.”
Jacques Demy’s most popular film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, exudes the magic of cinema like no other in its genre. Nominated for five Oscars including Best Foreign Language Feature and winning the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, the French musical works its way into our hearts with a simple tale of love and heartbreak.
The perpetually beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Belle de jour, 1967), who was around twenty years of age when the film was shot, stars as Genevieve, a young woman who falls in love with a car mechanic. His name is Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), but their romance is short-lived as he would be drafted into the French army to fight the war in Algeria.
As far as storylines go, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is nowhere original, but its execution gives it a sort of saccharine quality that you will come to love and remember. Demy’s work here is different from what we would identify as the Hollywood musical. In the latter, the characters would alternate between dialogue and songs-and-dances. Here, the characters sing their dialogue throughout the entire film.
It is something that we rarely see (or hear) in cinema. I would even describe the experience as refreshing and hypnotic. Demy followed up with The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) essentially using the same technique, but with more ambition.
However, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains to be his most enduring picture, perhaps because it is easily one of the most emotionally resonant pictures of its time, and isn’t obliged to favour a feel-good ending. Its bittersweet epilogue grounds the film in the realities of its time (and our time) and would leave you with wet eyes.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg makes use of colour elegantly. The assorted umbrella colours in the umbrella shop that Genevieve’s mother runs act as a visual allegory – that life is beautiful and diverse, but it also meets bad weather. In a truly mesmerizing opening sequence, we get an overhead shot of people opening their umbrellas as a light rain sweeps the town of Cherbourg.
Broken into three acts with title cards, Demy’s film is very rarely unengaging. The dialogue-as-lyrics is economical yet embedded with meaning, and if you are not already intrigued to see the picture, you will be heartened to know that Deneuve might just be the most beautiful actress to grace the screen this side of Claudia Cardinale.
Verdict: The magic of cinema is exuded in this dialogue-as-lyrics French musical that is easily one of the most emotionally resonant pictures of its time and genre.