The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
Directed by Jacques Demy — 1964, France — 92 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Musical Drama
IN BRIEF, beautiful, haunting entirely-sung drama of the difficult choices facing two young people in love.
While Jacques Demy’s two earlier features, Lola (1961) and Bay of Angels (1963), had been acclaimed, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) achieved stratospheric commercial success throughout the world as well as critical rapture, receiving the Palme d’Or at Cannes, five Oscar nominations (including best foreign language film, original screenplay, and music), and a spate of international awards; even its soundtrack album became a huge bestseller. And it continues to captivate new audiences, both through special 40th Anniversary screenings at revival cinemas and – as reviewed here – the gorgeous newly-restored DVD from Koch Lorber Films (KLF-DV-3014). The DVD’s pristine image and 5.1 Dolby Stereo (also included is the original mono soundtrack) are light years beyond the color-faded print I saw in college prior to the film’s restoration by Agnès Varda (not only Demy’s widow but the extraordinary filmmaker of Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, and the insightful documentary, The World of Jacques Demy). Even if you do not like musicals, you may find yourself taken with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It offers a unique experience, although it draws on a long legacy of stage and film works. The basic source of this brief film’s power – it is just an hour and a half long – is how it brings together a genuinely poignant tale of love found, lost, and remade with an infectious musical score and heartbreaking performances by its young leads, Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. The story is simple but universal and gripping; the combination of Michel Legrand’s music and Demy’s writing and direction make it one of the few essential screen musicals. (Please note that this review reveals some of the major plot elements of the film, so you may want to see it before reading any further.)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, set in this seaside town between 1957 and 1963, is divided into three sections. (a typographical error: in both the booklet and DVD menu incorrectly list the first chapter as “November, 1937” instead of the correct “November, 1957.”) The first section of this entirely-sung film introduces two sweet and attractive young people in love: Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), a 20-year-old auto mechanic, and 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve), who works in her widowed mother’s (Anne Vernon) charming but unsuccessful boutique, called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The night before Guy leaves for two years of combat service in Algeria, he and Geneviève make love. In the second part, which centers on Geneviève, we learn that she has becomes pregnant and must choose between waiting for Guy’s return or accepting a marriage proposal from the wealthy and lovelorn diamond merchant, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). The third section focuses on Guy after his return from the war, when he learns not only what has happened to Geneviève but that his beloved Aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey), who raised him, has died, and that their shy friend Madeleine (Ellen Farner) is in love with him.
This film fits snugly into Demy’s patented fictional universe, which he began delineating with his first feature, Lola. Demy often remarked that he was “trying to create a world in my films” (a literary analogy might be to the dozens of novels and stories comprising Balzac’s Human Comedy), in which characters and situations cross over from one picture to another. In fact, Lola’s leading male character, Roland Cassard, returns here as a major figure, played by the same excellent actor, Marc Michel, but now in an entirely-sung incarnation. He even recaps the events of the earlier picture, and how he went from slacker to jewel merchant, in a moving musical number (exposition is rarely this entertaining). Although you do not need to know the earlier film, it is poignant to see a series of inserted shots of the main marketplace location of Lola which is now as empty as, dare I say, Roland’s broken heart. It’s also worth noting that, from the first, Demy had wanted to make musicals; only the financial constraints of Lola’s producer kept it from being a full-blown musical (as it was originally conceived), with a score by Michel Legrand, in Cinemascope and color. But not long after the acclaim of that film and Bay of Angels, Demy got the chance to work in his beloved genre.
With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy expanded his fictional world, and his filmmaking, through a bold use of such new (for him) elements as color and a greatly expanded role for music. But before exploring those aspects, let’s look at his original screenplay, and what it brings to this extraordinary film. (Demy was a true writer/director, having authored nineteen of his twenty-one films; the two exceptions were early shorts.)
Demy’s films are set in self-contained, some would say hermetic, worlds, simultaneously wistful and fairy tale-like yet which contain enough of the psychological and social forces of ‘real life’ to constantly challenge their innate romanticism. Yet Demy’s films consistently eschew villains; and one of his insights – which keeps his best films from cloying – is that people contain enough internal contradictions that they are quite capable, all by themselves, of keeping their romantic fantasies from being realized. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is arguably the most perfect expression of Demy’s worldview, as well as of his underrated artisty as a filmmaker. Part of its strength comes from the simple yet masterful construction of its original screenplay. As noted in the plot summary above, it is in three sections: the first focusing equally on Geneviève and Guy, the second centering on Geneviève, and the third on Guy, with a brief but heartbreaking coda (yes, I cried… again) – set five years after the main action – when Geneviève and Guy happen to meet again.
Demy structures most of his scenes around two, or three, characters. Yet rather than seeming dramatically threadbare, this feels right – because of his superb cast as well as the unique style of his screenwriting (which I’ll discuss in a moment).
The film made the luminous Catherine Deneuve, then 20, the star she was meant to be. She’s beautiful, of course, but she also has a gift for evoking both passion and despair through understatement; and that makes her performance unusually haunting and resonant. She brings Geneviève fully to life, from the passionately naive 17-year-old of the first part, through the emotional turmoil of her pregnancy and decision over whether or not to marry Roland, to the final scene I mentioned above. This is truly one of the great performances. (Her eclectic career already spans over forty years, and includes Demy’s musicals The Young Girls of Rochefort and Donkey Skin, as well as Demy’s comedy A Slightly Pregnant Man, Polanski’s Repulsion, Buñuel’s Belle de jour and Tristana, Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid and The Last Metro, Melville’s Un Flic, and recently von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Ozon’s 8 Women.)
A point I emphasized in my earlier reviews of Lola and Bay of Angels, and which I want to talk about here as well, is that Demy’s first three films are equally about his fascinating and complex male characters. The actors who star in those films (respectively, Marc Michel, Claude Mann, and Nino Castelnuovo) are arguably the equals in talent and appeal to his exceptional actresses (Anouk Aimee, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve), but those men’s careers – although extensive – have not brought them roles in as many classic films. We should not overlook their pivotal importance to the films in which they appear. For instance, in this film, the first section gives Guy as much screen time as Geneviève, and the third section focuses on him exclusively. For some viewers, it might even seem that Guy comes off better than Geneviève, in terms of his own rueful happiness, because we see the extent of what he has struggled against, both externally and internally, and ovecome. If it is not greater, then it’s at least more overtly dramatized: he comes back wounded from the war, finds his girlfriend has left him and gotten married – he doesn’t know that they had a daughter, his beloved aunt is dead, he goes to seed, fights with the boss and gets fired, and more. We never see Geneviève hit such desperate lows – since hers are of a quieter nature; we also never see her married life with Roland, although in the final scene her massive but slightly rumpled bouffant hairdo speaks volumes about it. But we do see a loving, solid home life for Guy, Madeleine and their son Francois. (Trivia buffs take note: the boy is played by Michel Legrand’s son, Hervé; in a hearttugging coincidence, Geneviève had named her daughter Françoise – played by Rosalie Varda.)
Beyond his obvious rugged good looks, you can see the subtlety of Nino Castelnuovo’s performance in a brief moment: the first scene, when he leaves the garage during a rain storm, holds his face up for a second, grimaces, then ducks back inside. That brief little squint and wince strikes every note (pun intended) exactly right: one shade more and it would have been cloying, one shade less and it would have been too subtle to register. It also indicates Demy’s sure hand as a director, whether he gave Castelnuovo that specific micro gesture or whether he simply allowed it into the film. On a larger level, it is one of the early moments in which the film is being defined, both for itself and for us: jazzy, yet grounded in the particulars of everyday life. By the way, Castelnuovo actually was an auto mechanic before he became an actor, and he continues to work regularly films, mostly in Italy.
Demy’s structuring his screenplay around scenes with two or three characters not only allows us to focus on the handful of essential characters – Guy, Geneviève, her mother, and Roland – it also, in practical terms, means that Legrand can compose music for solos, duets and trios, which preserves the effective simplicity of the film, rather than having to go in for ever more elaborate ensemble pieces. (Remember how Mozart was always trying to top himself operatically, as in the sublime Marriage of Figaro, by adding more and more and more characters to his major musical numbers.) Even in the rare moments when Demy brings in masses of people, as during the gala carnival scene near the midpoint, his focus almost immediately returns to, and stays on, one character: there, Geneviève. In fact, he uses the carnival to contrast with her longing for Guy; yet he does so without reducing it to a facile irony. As with many other key shots – to the point where we realize that Demy intends this as a main visual motif (which climaxes in the final scene) – Demy has huge glass windows, both in shops and homes, through which we see the world passing by, oblivious to the characters we care about.
There is also a special quality in Demy’s dialogue – or should I say lyrics (both forms equally require naturalness, economy, and expressiveness). It is prosaic but playful, and often moving in its understatement. The characters’ words suggest much about who they are – especially about what they are not voicing but which we intuit – and their world. (None of the leads sang their roles; the cast credits below list actors with their “singing voice” counterparts.) A good example of Demy’s dialogue/lyrics occurs in the first scene between Geneviève and Guy, when she teases him with, “You smell like gasoline.” That is exactly what this shy yet romantically eager young woman would say to the man she loves: she understandably can’t take her eyes, or nose, off him, yet she doesn’t want to come across as too eager or gushingly starry-eyed. As always, Legrand’s slightly jazzy yet subtly rapturous music exactly catches the tone of Demy’s words, and then raises them to a new – but never histrionic or phony – level.
That style of Demy’s dialogue is absolutely right for this entirely-sung film. The script would be too slight for a ‘spoken’ movie, especially with so many two- and three-character scenes; yet it would not be overtly emotional or dramatic enough to sustain a full-blown musical, like West Side Story (stage 1957/film 1961 – its influence on Demy here in unmistakable), or a traditional opera, like Carmen (which Geneviève and Guy are guying to see on their date: Guy exclaims to his auto mechanic co-workers in the washroom – all singing of course – that, “I don’t like opera. Movies are better!”). In other words, the pitch of Demy’s words are absolutely what this film needs.
Although this is truly a landmark film musical (to find French works at all comparable you would have to go back to René Clair’s three great semi-musical comedies released in 1930-31: Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million, and À nous la liberté!), it could also be seen – although I doubt this was Demy and Legrand’s intention – as a return to the origins of opera from around 1600 (a major composer of which was Galileo’s father Vincenzo Galilei). Then, Renaissance musicians and poets were trying to recreate the lost musical idiom of the ancient Greek plays, which they conjectured was musically declaimed speech and not song per se. Although I don’t want to get too pedantic [smile], let me note that the precise term for what Demy and Legrand have created here is arioso. Although similar to recitative (the pitched speech you hear in expository scenes in opera, often accompanied just by a harpischord or piano and not the full orchestra), arioso has a greater melodic scope – although it never really becomes a full-blown song. (Perhaps the masterpiece of arioso composition is Debussy’s 1902 opera, Pelleas et Melisande.) In fact, even an extraordinary and unforgettable number like “I Will Wait for You” (DVD chapter 10 at 29:17), is structurally not a “song song;” rather it is still part of the arioso texture of the entire work. Also different from conventional songs (for example, like the ones which Demy employed in his next movie, The Young Girls of Rochefort – which I discuss below) is how Demy structures his numbers. Each one is a musical scene, rather than a song per se (which is about only one single emotion or idea). Demy and Legrand’s musical scenes are flexible enough to show the subtle evolution of the characters’ emotional states; they are also, of course, musically rich and often sheerly delightful.
What is most important to the film is how the music both enwraps us in the story and, more particularly, the emotions, even as the artificiality distances us. The music makes it both more real and more heightened, even mythic; yet we can never lose sight of the unreality. It is also noteworthy that there is no dancing in this film; that would have tipped the scales too much towards artifice for the heightened yet distanced naturalism which Demy wanted. I believe that part of the power of this film, and musicals and opera at their best, comes from this tension between sheer aural beauty, emotional expressiveness and power, and simutaneously the distance we experience – although, of course, we almost never think about those (highfalutin) psychological and aesthetic implications while we’re tapping our toes and maybe even (quietly) humming along.
Visually, Demy employs a rich, sometimes wild, visual scheme to riff on the music, as well as the characters. It is no surprise that he once said that his goal was to create “a mixture of poetry, color and music.” He had his lifelong design partner, Bernard Evein, paint a wide swathe of actual houses and shops in Cherbourg with eye-popping primaries and pastels to intensify the mood of the season, from a deeply-saturated look for winter to luminous pastels for spring. He even had costume designer Jacqueline Moreau match the cast’s wardrobe to, yes, the wallpaper designs: the Emerys upstairs apartment has bright pink and green striped walls, so of course Geneviève wears a pink sweater and her mother a green coat (thanks to this new DVD, at last we can fully see Demy’s fabulous use of color). To say that even the great Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Gigi) would have been chartreuse with envy is an understatement.
Some of Demy’s most effective, and memorable, effects are more subtle than bold splashes of color. One of my favorites – which has come back to me many times since first seeing the film years ago – occurs when Guy embraces Geneviève, as they move down an alleyway singing the last of their “I Will Wait for You” duet/scene. What is so extraordinary is that their legs do not move; rather, they “magically” (not to mention cost-effectively) float along in pure romantic bliss (although practically, they are pulled on a dolly just off-camera). This exquisite effect is borrowed from one of Demy’s favorite filmmakers, Cocteau in Beauty and the Beast; but I think it works perfectly here to crystallize this key moment of the young couple’s love.
Another simple but eloquent use of camera movement can be seen in the railway station scene which heartwrenchingly ends the first section. There is great power in Demy simply moving the camera away from the two parting lovers inside the station. But then he ups the dramatic ante by having the camera dolly beside the train on which Guy is leaving for Algeria. Most directors would have just mounted the camera on the train itself; but Demy’s decision allows him the flexibility to move the camera in a more subtle and evocative relation to both Guy and the rapidly-receding Geneviève. It’s a small but telling example of Demy’s precision, and how he uses it for full emotional effect. In an interview with Legrand, included on the excerpt from The World of Jacques Demy on this DVD, he talks about the notations he wryly made in the margins of his score about the various “hanky” moments in the film: and yes, this is a full-fledged three-hanky scene.
Legrand’s playful remark aside, this is a genuinely and deeply affecting moment. And I think that that’s a fundamental reason why this is a great film, which has moved audiences around the world for forty years. We understand that this is not a tragic love story, like Romeo and Juliet or its musical updating, West Side Story; rather this picture reminds us how romantic love is so often irreconcilable with the realities of everyday life. (For the people who have achieved both, I’m sure you know how fortunate you are.) I think that we respond as much to Demy’s bittersweet but nuanced worldview, as embodied in these extraordinarily ordinary people, as we do to the tunes and design.
The day after watching this new DVD of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I saw for the first time Demy’s next film, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967 – he had to wait two years for Gene Kelly to be available, although Kelly is only rarely onscreen). It’s interesting to see what happened when Demy tried to duplicate the splashy Hollywood musical; but the results are decidedly mixed. The film has an astonishing look, with colors even more eye-popping than those of MGM at its gaudiest (let alone The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and a genuine spaciousness, and there is an appealing – although underutilized because too large – cast, again starring Deneuve, and adding her real-life older sister, Françoise Dorléac, playing her onscreen sibling. But the routine choreography is often performed by too few dancers to provide the necessary oomph, the dances are ineffectively photographed, and not only are there too many songs – interspersed with brief patches of spoken dialogue – but they are repetitive and, worse, they never advance either character or plot. Each number is about a single generic idea/emotion (love, loss, snappy happiness, etc.), repeated in routine song form – some of Legrand’s melodies are infectious, especially the opening duet between the two sisters. Also, the tissue of coincidences – chance meetings and just-missed connections – feels forced here, unlike Demy’s deft, even magical, use of this ‘coincidental’ structure in Lola. I don’t mean to sound harsh about The Young Girls of Rochefort, which is a must-see if you are interested in the history of the film musical; but its problems contrast starkly with the understated triumph of it predecessor.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg contains so many emotional, dramatic, cinematic, and musical riches that it is easy to see why many people consider it not only Demy’s masterpiece but one of the greatest films, musical or otherwise. It reminds us that we can mend our hearts even when they are at their most broken – although in ways which we may never have expected, even as we hold onto our memories of the romantic fantasies which we left behind long ago.
- Written (screenplay and lyrics) & Directed by Jacques Demy
- Music (composed and conducted) by Michel Legrand
- Produced by Mag Bodard
- Cinematography by Jean Rabier
- Edited by Anne-Marie Cotret & Monique Teisseire
- Production Design by Bernard Evein
- Costume Design by Jacqueline Moreau
- Catherine Deneuve’s dresses by Real
- Hair Styles by Carita
- Makeup by Christine Fornelli
- Production Management by Philippe Dussart
- Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery
- Danielle Licari as Geneviève Emery (singing voice)
- Nino Castelnuovo as Guy Foucher
- José Bartel as Guy Foucher (singing voice)
- Anne Vernon as Madame Emery
- Christiane Legrand as Madame Emery (singing voice)
- Marc Michel as Roland Cassard
- Georges Blaness as Roland Cassard (singing voice)
- Ellen Farner as Madeleine
- Claudine Meunier as Madeleine (singing voice)
- Mireille Perrey as Aunt Élise
- Claire Leclerc as Aunt Élise (singing voice)
- Jean Champion as Aubin, garage owner
- Pierre Caden as Bernard, mechanic
- Jean-Pierre Dorat as Jean, mechanic
- Bernard Fradet as Gas Station Apprentice
- Michel Benoist as Umbrella Buyer
- Philippe Dumat as Garage Customer (1957 scene)
- Dorothée Blank as Girl in Cafe
- Jane Carat as Ginny
- Harald Wolff as Monsieur Dubourg, jeweller
- Jacques Demy as the stray customer; and the Waiter (singing voice)
- Michel Legrand as Jean, mailman (singing voice)
- Hervé Legrand as Francois Foucher (uncredited)
- Rosalie Varda as Françoise Cassard (uncredited)
This newly-restored DVD of the film from Koch Lorber Films offers gorgeous image and sound in both Dolby 5.1 Surround and the original mono.
- Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- includes both the original mono soundtrack and a Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround Sound version
- Optional English subtitles
- Excerpt from Agnès Varda’s documentary, The World of Jacques Demy, about the making of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, featuring interviews with the cast and crew
- $24.95 suggested retail
Reviewed April 15, 2004 / Revised October 25, 2020