Directed by Jacques Demy in 1964
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special movie. I bet you can’t name another film that’s entirely sung from start to finish. . . . but to me, it’s special for so much more than that.
It’s deeply wise without even really letting you in on that fact. It doesn’t play up to any sense of IMPORTANCE. It never makes claims to be anything at all beyond a simple story of first love lost, and yet . . . after you watch it, you’re both devastated and healed, and your own hopes and regrets seem to take on just that much more clarity. You realize as the lights go up, that you’ve been under the spell of an artist who has a profound understanding of human nature. He would never openly claim such a thing, about himself personally or about his films, but at its core, it’s this gentle, almost shy understanding of the human heart, that makes “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” such a great movie.
Usually, it’s imperative for a reviewer to avoid sounding hyperbolic, but I want to state up front, that I’m not going to be able to do that here, because, to be blunt, I love this film to bits. For me, every aspect of it is like a perfectly crafted bell that—when rung—will echo through the centuries.
The score—by Demy’s dear friend and constant collaborator, the legendary Michel Legrand—is not just one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I’ve ever heard, for film or otherwise, it also represents the most perfect teaming of director and composer as there ever was. Legrand’s music and Demy’s film are in a constant dance to the point where it ceases to matter where one ends and the other begins.
The film does not function like a traditional musical. There are no “songs.” The sung dialogue is just that, dialogue–ordinary, even banal conversation—set to melodies that illuminate the depth of emotion behind these incredibly simple, straightforward statements. Seen on paper, without the music, these statements wouldn’t add up too much. If a line like “Come, my love, my love!” was spoken by young mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) to his girlfriend Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) on the night before he’s shipped off to war, it would bring me to derisive laughter. The same line sung, however, brings me to tears of loss and sorrow. The combination of Demy’s blazingly colorful imagery and Legrand’s sweeping music creates a purely emotional space that is more alive, and truer, than simply plopping speaking actors in front of a camera. The essence of the moment is that the line is sung. Having this story of such simple, yet incredibly true, human emotions play out through the immediacy of singing, and the transcendent grandeur of Legrand’s music is, more than anything, why the movie rings with truth as you watch it.
But why does it continue to ring after the lights go up? This happens because of, the spirit of Jacques Demy.
By his own admission, Demy was not an intellectual. While so many of his peers in the French New Wave—including his wife, Agnes Varda—were shattering narrative conventions and working to re-define what the word “movie” even meant, Demy was, in his own words, “always looking for emotion.” Oh, his films certainly have their political and formalist elements, just by making “Umbrellas” with all sung dialogue, he was breaking cinematic boundaries, but mostly his films are about people–their joys and sorrows, their expectations and realities, their glowing hopes and dashed dreams–and the key is that these are people who he believes in . . . even loves.
Demy doesn’t look down on the young lovers in his film. He doesn’t patronize them. He is with them. He understands that their feelings are deep and true, but that also, by their very nature, the feelings must be fleeting. Their love cannot last, in fact, it must end in order for them to grow, and they will have to endure great pain, and make major compromises, but, Demy suggests . . . that’s life. The film’s perfect final scene, where the lovers meet for the last time, feels very low-key, and although Legrand’s music builds there to its greatest crescendo, the characters don’t seem to view what happens as tragedy. In the film’s last lines, as Genevieve turns to leave Guy’s gas station—the station they once dreamed of owning together—she stops and asks him “Are you doing well?” He responds, with quiet sorrow in his eyes “Yes. . . . very well.” and the film ends as Genevieve drives away, and Guy happily greets his returning wife with a kiss, before having a quick snowball fight with their young son as they head inside.
And therein lies the genius of Demy. These characters are not destroyed, they are not forever lost. They are going to survive, thrive even. Things don’t always work out the way you want, but that doesn’t mean that you are barred from having a good life. Quite the contrary. The ability to accept loss and disappointment can and does lead to greater happiness in the long run. This notion is so rarely displayed in film, especially in romantic films, that when we do see, it can come as a minor shock, but it’s a lesson that we all need to learn. It’s a lesson I needed badly when I first saw this movie, and I will be forever grateful to Demy (and Legrand) for helping me internalize it.
The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around far too often, but if there was ever a film I would describe with that word, it would be this one. From the surface pleasures of its magnificent music and exquisite, colorful production design and sweeping camera moves, to the depth and richness of its maker’s soul, to the way all of that intertwines for a once-in-a-lifetime moment of wonder . . . “masterpiece” is the only word I’m left with. This is a film I’ll treasure for the rest of my days, and I hope that if you see it, you will, too.