‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’ screens as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Jacques Demy: Heart of the New Wave” series on Saturday, February 8th at 3:00 pm and 6:30 pm, and Thursday, February 13th at 6:00 pm.
This review contains spoilers:
There aren't a lot of musicals, staged or filmed, that’ll hold my interest for longer than twenty minutes or so. If the piece is going to genuinely merge the structures, harmonies, rhythms and moods of the music with involving and believable stories and characters, or vice versa, then I’m generally in. For me, Stephen Sondheim is the master at this. But if the story’s just an excuse to string these songs together, or the musical form is an inappropriate stylistic delivery system for a story that would have otherwise done fine on its own, then my attention span retracts pretty quickly, almost regardless of the quality of one single element or the other. Good musicians always serve the song – singing, dancing and production values in a musical always have to serve the story first, not just showcase their own cleverness or invention.
So my viewing of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies De Cherbourg) (France, 1964) turned out to be a lovely surprise – a simple but heartfelt little melodrama that made consistent sense as it went along, visually engaging and rigorously designed, with plenty of time given to interesting and detailed characters, and inventive and lushly orchestrated music that really didn’t sound like anyone else’s. (And a few recognizable tunes that’ll have you thinking “Wait, that song is from this?”)
Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo, who went on to mostly B-movies and TV projects after this) and Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve, who went on to become Catherine Deneuve) are a young couple in love, in Cherbourg, of course; Guy is a crack mechanic at Aubin’s gas station and garage who lives with his aging Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) and her young nurse, Madeleine (Ellen Farner), and Geneviève helps out her widowed but still-spirited mother at their umbrella boutique. Geneviève loves him madly despite his rather modest long-term ambitions and prospects, but her mother (Anne Vernon) wants her to shake the stars out of her eyes and take a more practical long-view approach. Besides, she presciently remarks, military service is mandatory for young men in France, and he hasn't faced that yet. And, sure enough, Guy is conscripted for his two-year service during the French-Algerian war. A tearful goodbye, and a bon voyage night of passion before his departure, leaves Geneviève with a not-particularly-surprising bun-in-the-oven. Months and months go by, and, despite infrequent but heartfelt letters from Guy, Geneviève starts despairing for herself and her child. A few months before, Madame Emery and Geneviève had occasion to visit Monsieur Dubourg, a local jeweler, in order to sell some of Madame’s jewels to put out some financial fires at the boutique. Dubourg passes, but a visiting jeweler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) an enterprising young man who couldn’t help but overhear the conversation, comes to the rescue and helps her out. He and the Madame become friends, but the real subject of his interest is her comely daughter, and it isn’t long before he asks Madame about acquiring Geneviève’s hand in marriage. Geneviève is torn, but eventually makes the practical decision (with not a little help from Mom) to marry him, based on her admiration that he’s happy to join her in raising Guy’s child as their own.
Later that year, Guy returns – his service is cut short by a leg injury, and he’s stunned by the news that Geneviève has married Cassard and now lives the high-life in Paris. Resigned to his circumstances, he returns to Aubin’s while also drawing military pension; but he’s understandably resentful, and becomes a little surlier, creates a problem at work, loses his job, and picks up a girl at the local watering hole of dubious repute. Returning home, he’s met at the door by Madeleine, who breaks the news that Tante Elise passed away that night. Madeleine announces to Guy that she’ll be moving on – she’s always been fond of him, but hates what he’s become since his return. Guy implores her to stay on with him – she’s really the only steady presence in his life he has left, and he could sure use her help…
The narrative presentation of the film is wall-to-wall music. Every single line of dialogue is sung, making it more an opera than a true musical. But there are few if any arias, recitatifs, asides or large chorus segments - the musical form is pop song and jazz. And there’s no dancing to speak of anywhere in the film. While most of the leads have their sung vocals dubbed by much stronger singers (even France had its Marni Nixons), the vocals are still very conversational and intimately camera-scaled, but every sung line is a specific melodic part of the full score.
Even as musicals go, the film is colorful and, at times, outright ravishing. In the absence of large-scale show-stopping production numbers, Demy, cinematographer Jean Rabier (who did a great deal of his work with Claude Chabrol) and production designer Bernard Evein work wonders with the streetscapes and intimate interiors, employing a surprising amount of efficient camera movement and scrupulous design detail in some pretty close quarters.
What the film doesn't do is often more interesting than what it does. The first third of the film follows Guy and Geneviève’s courtship; the entire middle third follows Geneviève, her mother, and the burgeoning friendship with Roland Cassard. But once married, Geneviève drops out of the movie altogether – an almost unheard-of plot turn in musical theater form. Convention would dictate presenting some glimpse of the ‘after’ version of Geneviève’s life after having spent so much of her ‘before’ time with her. But the fact is that Demy’s simply not interested; for him, it’s a given that Geneviève will now be a far less interesting person. Moreover, Guy is a pretty unlikable guy upon his return, and Madeleine’s reluctance to have much more to do with him is grimly understandable. Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Reader, feels the film “has a reputation for sappiness it doesn't deserve.” I heartily concur.
As the film hits the home stretch, Madeleine’s down-to-earth practicality and modest ardor has turned Guy around – he uses a little money inherited from his aunt, and his pension, to buy his own small service station in Cherbourg, and he and Madeleine now have a small son. Clearly, Demy feels an affinity for the flawed strivers with everyday dreams in everyday places - here and in his other films - rather than the grandes succées who leave it all behind. Near the end of the film, at Christmastime, a black Mercedes sedan pulls into the station, driven by an elegant blonde with a young daughter. It’s, of course, Geneviève. But Guy has little to say to her, other than the basics about his new family. Geneviève asks if he’s all right, and he says he’s fine. He doesn't return the question. Geneviève drives away as Madeleine and little François return from Christmas shopping. If playing in the snow in a gas station driveway with your family can be some kind of apotheosis, then, by God, says Jacques Demy, that’s what it damned well is.