Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg]

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mon amour ne me quitte pas
lied uit Jaques Demy's film [1964]
met Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
muziek van Michel Legrand

Theater aan het Vrijthof speelt in het kader van Winterland Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
Naar de website van Theater aan het Vrijthof: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

over de film:

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was initially released in 1964, and, amongst other things, helped catapult Catherine Deneuve to stardom. In filming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, director Jacques Demy opted to sacrifice print longevity for vibrant color. The stock he used yielded brilliant hues, but degraded quickly. By the mid-seventies, the only remaining copies of the film were in terrible condition. But Demy, anticipating this problem from the outset, had archived multiple monochromatic negatives that, when properly combined with each other, allowed re-creation of the original color.

As a musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is unusual in several ways. First, unlike most big American productions of the time, there are no show-stopping production numbers. There's no dancing, no chorus, and no duets. Secondly, there are no spoken lines of dialogue -- everything, from the mundane to the important, is sung. Finally, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn't a lightweight bon-bon with a happily-ever-after ending. While the film has its share of effervescent moments, there's also an element of undeniable poignancy.

The two main characters, 17-year old Genevieve (Deneuve) and 20-year old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), are star-crossed lovers. Despite the stringent objections of Genevieve's mother (Anne Vernon), who thinks a gas station mechanic is beneath her daughter, the two continue their clandestine meetings, and eventually consummate their relationship. Soon after, Guy has to serve a stint away from France in the army. Following his departure, Genevieve learns that she is pregnant, and must decided whether to wait for Guy's uncertain return or marry the rich, cultured Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who offers stability, undying love, and the promise of raising her child as his own. Genevieve's choice irrevocably alters the lives of at least four people.

Watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it's not hard to understand why Deneuve became such an icon. Not only is she beautiful, but she possesses that elusive characteristic known simply as "star quality". She's the perfect lead for this film, which demands an actress possessing legitimate range. Demy has used the musical to explore several universal themes, particularly the meaning and nature of different kinds of love. Although most movies favor passion and true love, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows that another less demanding, more subtle kind of love has its own appeal.

James Berardinelli

Here's another way of putting it: the very first lines of dialogue in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all of them sung to big-band jazz, have in themselves a formal, almost musical rhythm. The setting is a garage, where the rain--which started behind the credits--is still falling. The camera keeps tracking back and forth, first with a customer, then with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), as each looks out at the rain then returns to the garage interior. (The following translation is mine.)

Customer (returning to the garage): "Finished yet?"
Guy (working on car): "Yep. The engine still rattles when it gets cold, but that's usual."
Customer: "Thanks."
Guy: "Thank you."
Boss (in the background): "Foucher--could you stay an extra hour tonight?"
Guy: "Tonight would be a problem. But I think Pierre's free. Pierre--could you stay later tonight?"
Pierre: "Yes."
Boss (to Pierre): "Check the ignition of the gentleman's Mercedes."

It's the most normal talk in the world. But because this is France, where even everyday talk is formalized, it has a strong rhythmic pattern in the original French--the way the customer and Guy say merci to each other, for instance, or the way the two uses of ce soir ("tonight") and the Foucher and Pierre pair off like rhymes. Singing this somewhat musical everyday speech merely places its formal aspect in higher relief.

Guy, as it happens, can't stay an extra hour because he has a date with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) to see the opera Carmen--something an American mechanic would be unlikely to see (though one of Guy's cohorts in the washroom remarks twice that he prefers movies to opera). It all seems very normal. Yet someone seeing the movie a second time may note that the gentleman with the black Mercedes whose ignition needs checking is none other than Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), the diamond merchant who later marries Genevieve but whom Guy never meets. (Nor is this the only strange confluence in Demy's universe: Cassard, played by the same actor, is also a major character in Lola, a fact that's alluded to directly much later in Umbrellas; even Legrand's lovely main theme for Lola is appropriated here.)


Why this preoccupation with normal life? We learn from Agnes Varda, Demy's wife, in her loving film portrait of her late husband's childhood, Jacquot de Nantes, that Demy's father worked in a garage just like Guy's. But this furnishes only one piece of the puzzle. Demy's fixation on everyday life--especially family life--has, I think, psychosexual roots much deeper than the facts of his biography. The only real counterpart to Demy I can think of is the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). His thematic and formal preoccupations also converge in a system of quotidian rituals--not only rituals like getting married, going off to war, having kids, and losing or finding work but also such minor rituals as saying "Good morning" and "Thank you." One of Ozu's sublime late films, Good Morning, is very much concerned with that particular salutation--as is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which has more than its share of bonjours, each one musically placed.

Another parallel between Demy and Ozu, and one not widely known, is that both were gay men living in highly formalized middle-class societies where "coming out" was not regarded as a viable option. (One would have to say that Demy was bisexual, perhaps, because he fathered children with Varda; he died of complications arising from AIDS in 1990.) Their fascination with "normal" family life was thus emotionally and philosophically complex--their views both idealized and ironic, bitterly tragic and stringently comic, because they came at least in part from the vantage point of outsiders who chose to express themselves in mainstream terms. It may say something about the difference between Japan and France--as well as the difference between Ozu and Demy as artists--that Ozu's films are full of father figures and Demy's are more often bereft of them (with a few exceptions in the latter portion of his career). But their views of the human condition are surprisingly similar. (Viewers who don't want to know the whole story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are advised to step off here.)


Returning from Algeria in 1959 and finding Genevieve gone, Guy quits his job at the garage to live on his military pension. At loose ends, he's almost as much of an emotional mess as the young veteran of the Algerian war from Boulogne in Alain Resnais' Muriel (1963)--perhaps the only other major French film of the period to deal with the traumatic effect of that war on French civilian life, an effect that in many ways was echoed by the impact of the Vietnam war on America a few years later. (Muriel is likewise preoccupied with small-town life and everyday rituals, and it has formal parallels with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well: just after Guy and Genevieve go to bed together, for the first and only time, there are rhythmic cuts to three locations, now empty, where we'd previously seen them, in a manner that explicitly recalls not only Muriel but the final sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni's Eclipse, made in 1962.)

After spending a night with a prostitute, Guy discovers that his devoted Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) has died during his absence. He inherits enough money from her to buy an Esso station in town and winds up marrying Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the young woman who took care of his aunt.

We move ahead to Christmas 1963 (about six weeks prior to the Paris premiere of the film): Guy and Madeleine are trimming the Christmas tree inside the office of their Esso station. They have a little boy now, and snow is falling in heaps (another ironic "rhyme," this one with the equally artificial and stylized rainfall of the opening sequence). Madeleine and the boy, Francois, go out for a walk, and Genevieve pulls up in the black Mercedes with her little girl, Francoise--Guy's daughter. Recognizing Genevieve with a start, Guy invites her into the office. She says that this is her first trip to Cherbourg since her marriage; she's bringing Francoise back from a visit with her paternal grandmother, she says, and adds that her mother has died. She asks if Guy wants to see Francoise, and he replies, "I think you'd better go." Their parting exchange couldn't be more banal: Toi, tout va bien? Oui, tres bien. ("Are things going well with you?" "Yes, very well.") In long shot, she drives off just as Madeleine and Francois return from their walk; Guy briefly plays with Francois in the snow, then all three enter the office as the camera cranes up into the sky.

The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally "Cherbourgian Stopover," but if we consider that escalader means "to scale or to climb" and escalier means "stairway," we can read traces of a buried pun: "a bourgeois step up." Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Genevieve has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before. And as for the Esso sign that gave me so much trouble, what better indication could there be of the Americanization of small-town France, a simple fact of everyday life that this movie treats like any other? Product placement or not, it has the ring of absolute truth.


For all the apparent sugar and spice of Legrand's memorable score and for all the candy-colored wallpaper, Demy's social observation in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg couldn't be more clear-eyed. (Twenty years later, Demy's class awareness and political consciousness were even more overt in Une chambre a ville, an original opera about a strike of naval workers set in Nantes in the mid-50s. Written without Legrand, it may have been his final masterpiece.) Demy charts with withering accuracy the steps that Genevieve's mother (Anne Vernon) takes to snare the diamond merchant--a process that begins even before she discovers Genevieve is pregnant. But Demy doesn't view the process satirically or even judgmentally; he's simply observing in detail the way French people behave in such situations.

This describes the content of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the style can't be labeled realistic even if one ignores the music. Aiming for a heightened reality to set off the more mundane reality of his characters, Demy and his set designer, Bernard Evein, repainted whole sections of Cherbourg so that the colors would be much more vivid and coordinated than they were in real life; a similar approach is evident in the costumes.

This heightening of visual detail is the counterpart of the heightening of emotions and the sharpening of form achieved by setting the dialogue to music. (Though Legrand isn't credited as the film's cowriter, his collaboration with Demy, who wrote the lyrics, suggests that he may well deserve to be, for this is a film in which the score and the narrative are inseparable, shaped to the same architecture. Demy once noted that Umbrellas should be described as a film "in song" the way that some films are "in color.") Jean-Pierre Berthome, who wrote the only book about Demy I'm aware of--the beautifully observed and richly detailed Jacques Demy: Les racines du reve (1982)--aptly notes that when Guy and Genevieve sit together in a cafe on their last evening together, even the drinks they've ordered ("Genevieve's amber aperitif, Guy's canary yellow pastis") are color-coordinated with everything else in the scene. Demy's visual orchestration is the perfect complement to Legrand's musical orchestration; both create a powerful emotional intensification that perfects or contradicts the banality of the dialogue.

Chicago Reader Inc.


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