Cinematic Heaven: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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Les parapluies de Cherbourg | Jacques Demy, 1964

One of the things I love the most is sitting down to watch a film that comes highly recommended from a variety of people and organizations, and yet it manages to blow all those expectations as well. I love this particular feeling because it’s rare. Either they turn out to meet those expectations, or they fail. In the case of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all I knew was that it was a musical, in French, it starred Catherine Deneuve, and that it was a joy to watch. But nothing could prepare me for the greatness that was about to come my way.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells a simple story of young love in the late 1950s. It follows Genevieve (Deneuve in the role that made her an international star), a 16-year-old girl who is in a loving relationship with Guy (Nino Castenuovo), a 20-year-old mechanic. They plan to get married, but as one would expect, her mother is opposed to it because she is young. Not only that, but Guy gets his notice to fulfill his military service and has to leave for two years to fight in Algeria. And so, to show their commitment to each other, they consummate their relationship, which leaves her pregnant, and what follows is a struggle for her to decided whether to wait for Guy or to marry Roland Cassard (Marc Michele), a man who loves her enough to raise the child as his own and who will give her a great life of luxury.

The story its self, as good and timeless as it is, is not all that made the film great. Most of the genius of it comes from the fact that all the dialogue is sung. That will probably be torture for some, and it did throw me off for the first few minutes, especially when we are watching burly mechanics singing about sports and how they hate theater. But the sung dialogue is so well written and thought out, and the accompanying score by Michel Legrand is so beautifully bombastic, lively, and dramatic that I could not help but eventually warm up to it and get carried away. In fact, were it not for the music, some of the scenes would not have had the dramatic weight that they have. For example, there’s the ending. It is shot in such a laidback way, but the music, and the actors’ performances do the work, and the result is one of the most bittersweet, yet charming endings in the history of cinema.

That’s not to say that the music was all there was to it. No, Jacques Demy’s script feels fresh despite telling this story that has been dealt with before. First off, I love how Genevieve is not immediately thought of as a whore for becoming pregnant before getting married, and that her mom actually supports her despite having some reservations at first. Also, the way the mom (Anne Vernon) is portrayed is not one dimensional at all, but rather she is a well rounded character with plenty of experience in the matters that her daughter is dealing with and just wants her to be the best she can be. And I love how Cassard is a good man with good intentions and not just a cookie cutter villain that wants to marry Genevieve because he wants her for his collection or something.

The performances, well, there’s really not much I can say about them. Deneuve not only has a lovely voice, but she brings this earnestness to her character. We actually see a girl in love struggling with her feelings rather than a foolish girl holding on to a silly crush. Castenuovo nails the part of the hopeless romantic during the first segment, and is heartbreaking in his return to Cherbourg. You know where his storyline is going, and yet I could not help but be on the edge of my seat, hoping that he would not stray from the right path and become an alcoholic. The other performance worth noting is Vernon’s as she is amazing as Genevieve’s single mom. Her facial expressions and body language reminded me so much of the many great parents I’ve met over the years, that I bet if any parent sees this they will immediately connect to her, even if they are rooting for Genevieve and Guy’s relationship.

The rest of what makes the film great is derived from the below-the-line aspects apart from the music. The best of them all is Demy’s direction. As it wasn’t courageous enough to make something nearly similar to an opera for the silver screen, it’s amazing how he handled it. Most of the musical numbers are shot in long takes, which is part of what allows one to get immersed in the world he created, its almost as if we were watching a live-play. He doesn’t let the editing tell us how flashy it is, but actually lets the actors do the work, and lets his cinematographer take a step back and focus on giving us smooth and hypnotizing camera movements.

And I won’t go in depth about the beautifully detailed and colorful set designs and costumes, otherwise I’d be here a while. Just know that visually, it’s unlike anything that you have seen, especially if your focus is on current stuff. Of the most recent films, I can only thing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo as coming close to matching the visual lushness and splendor of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Although I’ve just seen it, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg immediately jumped to the list of the absolute best films I’ve ever seen. In fact, there’s a fierce fight going on in my head between it and The Red Shoes to see if it takes over the number one spot. I’m still in such a high from it, almost 12 hours after watching it that whenever I think about it I get chills and want to drop everything I’m doing to watch it again. I most definitely look forward to watch it many more times over the years. It’s simply a masterpiece.

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