The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)

France (1964) Dir. Jacques Demy

1957 and in the small Normandy coastal town of Cherbourg, 16 year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve), who lives and works with her mother (Anne Vernon) in their small and struggling umbrella shop, is in love with young mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Madame Emery doesn’t approve, hoping that her daughter would instead marry on the many rich suitors she knows but she might just get her wish when Guy is conscripted for a two year stint in the Algerian War.

Shortly after Guy leaves Geneviève discovers she is pregnant to him, her sadness compounded when Guy’s letters home become infrequent. To save face for both Geneviève and the baby, Madame Emery encourages a union between her daughter and wealthy Parisian jeweller Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who has been in love with Geneviève for a while and is happy to marry her, another man’s baby and all.

I have to confess that the only musical film I have where every line of dialogue is sung as opposed to the cast randomly bursting into song for the sake of it is Ken Russell’s seminal adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy. I’ve a sneaking suspicion, having now watched this film for the first time, that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may have been an influence on Russell’s film even if they are vastly different from each other in both storyline and musical content.

Jacques Demy was the odd man out of the French New Wave of cinema of the 50’s and 60’s, eschewing the surreal experimental style or caustic political commentary of his contemporaries in favour of fantasy musicals inspired by classic Hollywood and fairy tales, carving his own niche in the big screen biz.

This colourful and perky outing from 1964 is not just the antithesis of the Beatles lead rock’ n’ roll boom which was sweeping the world but also the film which catapulted leading lady Catherine Deneuve onto the path of superstardom. It is also a deceptive film, with a slightly melancholic tale of lost love and social conventions pushing two people meant for each other in opposite directions.

But it wouldn’t be a romantic drama without the good old fashioned love triangle and that we have. Guy is not a bad…chap…despite what Mother Emery may think. He lives with his elderly Aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey) who is very ill, looked after by a shy young carer Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who carries a flame for the hunky mechanic but is too timid to say so, being fully aware of his relationship with Geneviève.

When guy goes off to war Geneviève becomes paranoid that the lack of communication from him means he is busy messing around with other women, clearly not understanding what a war really constitutes. For her mother this is a chance to encourage the “out of sight, out of mind” state of mind, successfully negotiating the marriage between her daughter and moneybags Cassard.

Guy eventually returns after his war effort, slightly injured and confused by all the changes that have occurred in his absence, the most devastating behind Geneviève’s marriage and subsequent moving to Paris. With Aunt Éliseis on her last legs the green light for a relationship between Guy and Madeleine starts to flicker with Guy seemingly ready to accept his fate with the second best option for a wife. But can he get over Geneviève and did she ever get over Guy?

That sounds like an unfair way to describe poor Madeleine but the reality is she within the context of this story that is ostensibly what she represents for Guy having lost the love of his life. But as we know fate is a funny thing and can yield some interesting results when some tough choices are made.

The vibrant colours of the outfits and sets, the jaunty, upbeat musical numbers courtesy of Oscar winning composer Michel Legrand totally belie the heart-rending story that unfolds disarming the viewer of their expectations of what they are watching.

It’s to the testament of Demy that he is able to present us with a story that is easy to follow and with characters that are well defined told through the medium of song but that is exactly is what he achieves here. Credit also goes to the cast for their part in bringing this vision and the characters alive.

Catherine Deneuve has her usual glamour toned down to make the then 21 year-old look like a believable sixteen while she does her best to embody the innocence and vitality of someone so young, somewhat different from her career defining role as the sexually repressed housewife in Belle de Jour just a few years later. Whether she convinces or not, Deneuve’s screen presence and obvious magnetic appeal shines through even today, unfortunately leaving her equally impressive co-stars in the shade.

Two of the songs featured in this film were translated into English, I Will Wait for You and Watch What Happens, and became easy listening standards. However for the film none of the cast sung themselves, the voices heard on screen supplied by professional singers. This adds to the effectiveness of the actors since their lip-synching is impeccable making the entire illusion a success.

This review is based on the Blu-ray re-issue celebrating the 50th anniversary of the film’s initial release and the transfer is superb, allowing the bright and often garish colours to attack your retinas with full force. The film still has that 60’s veneer about it but the vibrancy of this HD transfer should help find it a new audience.

Arguably the most beguiling thing about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that for the first time viewer its effervescence and fantasy bent creates an impression that Jacques Demy was something of a precocious child let loose with film equipment, yet the underlying cleverness of the film’s poignant plot contrasting these images suggests a smart and canny filmmaker at work.

A sugary but bittersweet treat.