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From the Vault: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jacques Demy’s masterpiece is a high mark in the musical film genre

From unifrance.org

Back in 2016, La La Land was a massive hit with audiences and critics alike. However, there was backlash from large groups of period regarding La La Land and it’s right to be in the conversation as being one of the best films of 2016. Finding flaws and hating on a film is easy to do. But, making blanket statements about a film is a slippery slope. Failing to understand a director or writer’s intention — especially in a rich film like La La Land — is a mistake when critiquing the film. La La Land exists because of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s love and fascination of past musicals: Broadway Melody of 1940, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Viewing La La Land as a continuation of their legacy makes the film a success.

Chazelle’s clear inspiration comes from across the Atlantic. In France during the 1960s, the French director, Jacques Demy, was laying the groundwork for La La Land to possible. Two films — The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — are direct influences on Chazelle’s vision for his modern day musical. Of the two, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the clear parent of La La Land. The 1964 French film is visually beautifully, incredibly charming and thematically similar to Chazelle’s musical.

From rogerebert.com

Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is written by Jacques Demy. Cherbourg is a coastal town in France, where Geneviève (Deneuve) works with her mother at their boutique shop. She falls in love with Guy (Castelnuovo), a mechanic in the town. The two fall in love, promising to be together forever. Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War. With Guy gone, Geneviève gets lonely, heightened by the fact that Guy writes infrequent letters. Geneviève, pregnant with Guy’s kid, accepts the love of another man. The two are married. When Guy returns, Geneviève is gone and his life spirals out of control. The two former lovers meet a couple years later: Geneviève is part of the social elite in France; Guy owns a gas station.

The film’s dialogue is entirely sung, accompanied by music compose by Michel Legrand. For me, the music is sweet and airy — very easy on the ears. However, the songs all flow into one another. Therefore, it is hard to pinpoint a favorite “song”. What stands out is Demy’s choice to be colorful. Sets are brightly colored; the cinematography helps make the colors pop. Choosing to make the world beautifully colorful juxtaposes the harsh realities of life. Love is lost; uncertainty prevails. Yet, the buildings, decor and clothes everyone wears are gorgeous. Everything about this film — production wise and musically — is appealing, which is the opposite mood and attitude of the story unfolding. Demy softens the blow of the failing love between Geneviève and Guy with making everything else lush and rich.

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are incredible as Geneviève and Guy. This story does not work without the audience believing in the romance the couple share. All through the first half of the film, the love that exists between the couple is clear and evident. Aided by wonderful music, Deneuve and Castelnuovo give loving and passionate performances. There is a loving glow that surrounds the couple when they are together, both brilliantly feeding off each other. When separated, the glow dims; the spring in their step lost. Deneuve and Castelnuovo perfectly understand their characters.

Thematically, Umbrellas of Cherbourg and La La Land are similar. Both films recognize the power and strength of sacrifice. Geneviève and Guy have to sacrifice their love when Guy gets drafted. When Geneviève learns she is pregnant, not knowing if the father will ever return, she sacrifices the life she dreamed about for a realistic one. Guy, realizing Geneviève moved on without him, chooses not to pursue her — ultimately sacrificing his dream to be with her. The sacrifices in La La Land are different compared to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the breadth and impact of doing so is a major theme of both films. Demy is a master of having the characters come to terms with these sacrifices, where, in the end, the characters could move on.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a great stamp on the musical genre. The film delivers a fascinating, amusing and truthful story, with music and production values that are appealing to eye and ear.

Demy’s work can be seen on The Criterion Channel.

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Alex Bauer

Alex Bauer

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Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at ambauer93@gmail.com