The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The next entry in our series of movies that inspired or are referenced by “La La Land,” is “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” This is the move that I seem to hear mentioned the most in connection to “La La Land.” After viewing Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical that’s loaded with vibrant colors and marked by a story of love and loss, it’s not hard to see why. Let’s take a closer look.

Up until this point in my life, I’d never been a big fan of movie musicals. People breaking out into song and dance just took my mind out of the picture. I was even a bit nervous heading into “La La Land” that it wouldn’t totally land with me because it was a musical.

So imagine what I was feeling during the first few minutes of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Jacques Demy’s 1963 “musical” about two young lovers and how their lives go down separate paths. The movie begins with a really cool opening sequence on a rainy day. The shot is from directly above a busy sidewalk, and all you can see are people’s umbrellas moving about the street. It’s a pastel rainbow of circles criss-crossing back and forth.

Soon after, we’re introduced to one of the movie’s two lead characters, Guy, a handsome auto mechanic. As the camera moves into the garage that employs Guy, the jazzy score starts right up, and it felt like “La La Land” all over again. Only, you know, in a garage. Then the dialog begins. With singing. And more singing. Only singing. This isn’t your traditional movie musical. In reality, it’s an opera. Luckily for the viewer, it’s a beautiful, technicolor, bittersweet opera.

Now if you’re bothered by people breaking out into song in musicals, the idea that every line of dialog is sung may induce the most dramatic of eye rolls. I did not know going in that this was an opera, and I will readily admit, once I figured out what was going on, the feeling I had was much closer to dread than delight. As it turned out though, I was surprised how quickly my fear faded. Within a few minutes, I wasn’t thinking about the singing anymore. It just felt natural and blended into the whole experience. If the film-making is strong enough, it can overcome a lot of biases.

The plot here revolves around 17-year-old Genevieve (played by the stunning Catherine Deneuve), daughter of an overbearing shopkeeper in Cherbourg. (The shop is called “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and it sells- wait for it- umbrellas.) Genevieve is madly in love with Guy, and they want to start planning their future together. Throwing a wrench into that is the fact that Guy gets drafted into the French army and has to leave Cherbourg for no less than two years. And oh, the pair sleep together on the eve of Guy’s departure and Genevieve becomes pregnant. Crazy kids!

For the first half-to-two-thirds of the movie, Demy really focuses of Genevieve. She is in love, but as Guy leaves, she’s staring at single motherhood and a bit of a dead-end life, save for the struggling umbrella shop. But after she decides to marry the wealthy jeweler Roland Cassard and they run off to Paris, Demy switches the focus to Guy. He returns home to find love of his own. The shift in perspective was an unexpected but welcome development. We see G & G as a couple, then we get to see a bit of life through each of their perspectives.

The story climaxes on a snowy Christmas eve at Guy’s gas station and garage, when Genevieve pulls into the station to fill up. Guy walks out to service the car and realizes who’s driving. To make matters more complicated, riding shotgun is Guy’s daughter, in whose life he has absolutely no role. Guy and Genevieve go inside to talk for a couple minutes, making small talk about life, both of them closely guarded and not revealing much. It’s a moment that a great many of us have experienced in life: running into an ex. There’s at once a feeling of intimacy and incredible distance. Your heart may want to hug the person, and your head says, “Are you crazy?” The whole feeling is captured in a beautiful, understated manner here.

The beginning of the movie feels like a light-hearted romp through a picturesque French coastal town. It’s all love and sunshine for our leads, and almost everything in Demy’s production is incredibly vibrant, from the clothes on the actors to the wallpaper in the shop and in the apartments. But as things move along, the story starts to feel like a light tragedy. Guy leaves, Genevieve is pregnant, she marries a man she doesn’t love. Guy returns to find Genevieve married and gone to Paris and then his aunt dies shortly thereafter. Bad times all around. But it’s that last sequence, the meeting between the two that feels so utterly heartbreaking, despite both being at peace with their lives at that point. One twist of fate and they may have ended up together.

“Umbrellas” definitely has a bit of a postmodern flair; at various times throughout it pokes fun at itself, or at the very least, general tropes in movies. Early on, when Guy is in the garage’s locker room, he tells his colleagues that’s he’s going to the theater that evening, and one remarks that he enjoys the movies better than the opera. This elicited a grin from me, because I was thinking basically the exact same thing at the time the line is uttered (or more accurately, sung). At one point, Genevieve says she feels she’s going to die of heartbreak. Her mother says that only happens to people in the movies. But perhaps the biggest joke is when her mother tells Genevieve that she is not ugly, but she’s not a beauty queen:

Umm, okay Mom.

As is the case with “La La Land,” color is used here to great effect. The colors are so bold that you can’t help be reminded that you’re watching a movie, and that these characters are all part of some kind of heightened reality. Maybe Demy is trying to show youth, excitement and optimism through this bright palette. After all, in the closing scenes, G & G are clad in dark coats against the white of the fallen snow. Reality has set in for both, and their surroundings are quite a bit more muted. Either way, this movie is a beautiful one to look at it, even if the colors can be almost overwhelming at times.

Another thing I found interesting is that the main theme in the movie, “I Will Wait For You,” sounded so familiar to me, I assumed it was being re-purposed from another earlier movie. As it turns out, it was written by composer Michel Legrand for “Umbrellas.” Strangely, I had this exact same feeling with “The Fools Who Dream” from “La La Land.” I figured it was an old song that was dusted off for a modern audience. Wrong again. But both gave me that feeling like I’d heard the tune before, but just couldn’t put my finger on where.

Finally, I spied at least one more spot where Chazelle may have just drawn a bit of inspiration for his film:

Here’s a movie where literally every word is sung, and at times it all feels a bit dream-like. But the end is so very true to life and sobering that you sort of forget the whole operatic construct you just watch for the last 90 minutes. To me, that feels like the mark of a timeless story.

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