THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
Upon its American release in 1964, crotchety old man-cum-film critic Bosley Crowther had rather unkind words for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, when he derided it as “a cinematic conception so shiny and sleek and sugar-sweet—so studiously sentimental—it comes suspiciously close to a spoof.”
Besides displaying a supernatural ability to craft sentences using “S” sounds, it also displays a common sentiment visited on this film at the time, deriding it for a sense of artificiality and cotton candy lightness. It seems as though none but Pauline Kael found an understanding of what this film was. Ah Pauline, always ahead of your time.
Of course, I write this with 50 years of film history and discussion between me and the release of Umbrellas, and all manner of films that enlightened us as to the meaning and applicability of artificiality on film, so I really shouldn’t judge them too harshly.
I will anyway though, as I find it baffling how the beauties of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg don’t unfold before you on first viewing. This is yes, an excessively lovely and sweet film. An operatic musical love story for the ages between a young umbrella shop owner’s daughter (Catherine Deneuve) and a young mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo) that is torn apart when that young mechanic must leave his first love for the Algerian War, changing the course of their lives.
But director Jacques Demy, an outsider of the outsiders in the French New Wave, isn’t interested in anything as simple as a classic love story. No, with this film, he’s crafted something far more interesting.
And craft is not used lightly. Like only the most brilliant sculptors and painters can, Demy (alongside cinematographer Jean Rabier) has transformed the world that his camera eye has capture. It’s supreme control, no element feels out of place or as though it is not the perfect choice. It’s become cliche in the intervening years since to talk about the color of this film, but it’s because it’s undeniable. The Technicolor-esque processes make this film pop and soar, allowing the pinks and blues and reds and yellows to wash over you. It’s an undeniably gorgeous and bold film in its construction.
That holds true when it comes time for the actors. Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy is an admirable and complex romantic leading man, and I do so enjoy Anne Vernon as Madme Emery, giving the role of the disapproving mother so much more credit than any other musical would have given her.
It is Catherine Deneuve who steals this film. Few actresses in the history of film are more enchanting and more instantly show-stealing than Deneuve. No actress is more perfect for their film, feeling for all the world as much of a craft as the movie around her. This film is positively worth viewing just to see her.
Even if she’s not singing. No, that honor belongs to Danielle Licari, who dubbed all of Deneuve’s musical lines. Which seems bizarre, right? Every line of dialogue is sung in this film, yet Deneueve’s singing was dubbed. Where’s the truth!?
That question gets into the heart of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is that artifice is truth. Demy has crafted a world that externalizes the hearts of his characters and the hearts of humanity. His world pops beautifully in the intoxicating reality of effusive first love, filled with color of all sorts. But by the end, it becomes drained by bittersweet reality, and the way love ends up being. When the two lovers meet again at the end, separated by the war and by the years, the pinks and blues and magical apparatus that floats them along the streets have all disappeared. It’s snow and swirling shadows. The intoxicating love is gone, replaced by what is and not what was.
That’s what Demy expresses through his craft. He knows that musicals are all about love triumphing over all and he’s not interested in that. He certainly knows you are. He’s given Umbrellas of Cherbourg all the signposts and effusive love that you expect, he’s put all that out there.
It’s so that his lessons hit all the harder. You expect Guy to fight for his woman when he finds her taken by another. But he realizes that’s not for the best, and moves on. You expect to find that Genevive’s mother has hidden all the letters from Guy during the war. But she didn’t, she was just right that love can fade away with time.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a gorgeous film that gives you everything you want. Beautiful people singing wonderful things in deep love. It’s all so that he can show you that life is sad, dark, and difficult. But that it will be okay. Life goes on, even if you wait forever.