The film world is currently listing its best movies of the decade and so there is, inevitably, a lot of love for Damien Chazelle’s delightful La La Land. With that in mind, now is a great time to experience French New Wave figure Jacques Demy’s masterful 1960s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was perhaps the single biggest influence behind Chazelle’s movie. Fortunately, the fine folk at the BFI are releasing the movie as part of their ongoing season celebrating musicals on the big screen.
It’s a story of love and heartbreak in the 1950s, split into three clear parts. “The Departure” introduces mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and his lover Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), who works with her disapproving mother (Anne Vernon) in the titular umbrella shop. As they prepare to marry, he is conscripted to fight in Algeria and Genevieve’s mother sees an opportunity to try to turn her daughter’s affections towards sophisticated jeweller Roland Cassard (Marc Michel).
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a delightfully graceful musical tale, in which all of the dialogue is sung. Demy creates a world that pops with vivid colour, giving everything a quasi-magical feel, as if we’re witnessing a starry-eyed recollection of the past, rather than a story unfolding in real-time. It’s a movie about how absence makes the heart grow not fonder, but distant. Demy upends and mangles our expectations of a romantic story, despite his near-fairytale execution of the visual feel and the aural landscape.
All of the central cast fully buy into the heightened melodrama of Demy’s world. Deneuve swerves between a lovestruck, sunny persona in the opening act to someone who’s lovesick and under a cloud. The umbrellas Geneviève sells seem to serve as a metaphor for her need to protect herself from the emotional downpour she finds herself beneath. Everything about her courtship with Roland feels wrong as if she’s a square peg being forced into a round hole by her mother and the pressures of society.
Wisely, the movie keeps the focus on the luminous Deneuve and her turmoil, rather than cutting away to Castelnuovo’s experiences at the front. The audience feels his absence as Geneviève does, and so the ache and longing of her singing are increasingly pronounced. It all leads to a delightfully subtle finale, which essentially provides a more nuanced and less obvious take on the celebrated final flourish of La La Land. Many, many tears were shed in my screening.
Demy’s film is the perfect collision of bold cinematic style, warmly-embraced melodrama, and emotional precision. The trappings of the movie are broad and theatrical, with lashings of kaleidoscopic colour, but it never uses that as an excuse to deal in emotions which are anything other than bracingly real and keenly felt. This is a musical to be treasured – an elegant construction of the most colourful potency.
Dir: Jacques Demy
Scr: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey
Prd: Mag Bodard, Gilbert de Goldschmidt, Pierre Lazareff
DOP: Jean Rabier
Music: Michael Legrand
Country: France, Germany
Run time: 91 mins
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is re-released in UK cinemas from 6th December as part of BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen.