DNow is probably the right time to take a first or second look at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There is nothing else like it, not even writer-director Jacques Demy’s next film, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and that one starred not only French legends Catherine Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorléac, but other French legends Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli, AND Oscar winners George Chakiris (West Side Story) and Gene Kelly. Yes, that’s quite the cast, and it’s an incredible film. Yet there is nothing quite like Umbrellas.
Umbrellas is an obvious homage to the golden age of the American musical, with its slightly heightened emotions and colorful costumes and sets. But it’s not a satire like Singin’ in the Rain; it’s a love letter and a tribute that takes subjects and themes to another level. It’s completely sung-through, which in the mid-‘60s could have been distancing, but now after Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and even the more recent Annette, it’s not such a strange thing. It almost feels comfortable.
The story could be described as thin (no spoilers here), but where it goes is unlike any classic American musical you could think of. It’s tender, and almost heartbreaking (and perhaps not “almost” for some viewers). It resolves its narrative well and clearly, but the attendant emotions are complex and could be considered contradictory. The film addresses issues of love, first love, money, time, sacrifice, compromise, wisdom, sex, marriage, yearning, and regret—all wrapped up in a pastel bow. That’s not exactly a list of subjects addressed by classic American musicals.
The film is a technical marvel and has nary a misstep in its cinematography. The blocking of actors and the movement of the camera is so on point that you don’t even notice it; the movie just keeps rolling along. The music is extraordinary—imagine a completely sung-through film with no major songs. No one stops to sing a number. There is, however, a theme song, called “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” and known as “I Will Wait for You” in English. It was pulled out as a discrete song and was nominated for Best Song (more on that later), but in the film, it’s a theme that appears at several moments. Suffice it to say that the music, by legendary Michel Legrand (Oscars for “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair and the score of Summer of ’42 and Yentl) never dominates the acting or the imagery, but is perfectly paired with both. (Note: This theme, and even the “single song” version of it, is one of the most haunting, evocative, stirring pieces of music ever written for a film. Just try to get it to leave your head, or your heart, for several days after viewing.)
Even the lip-synching is extraordinary. Real singers such as Jeanette MacDonald and Judy Garland liked to genuinely sing along with their recorded voices when filming to look as if their characters were singing what we were hearing. The “gold standard” for synching while singing to someone else’s voice, in my view, is Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, but there she needed to look like she was channeling Edith Piaf as a performer. Here the synching is softer and subtler, looking as if it existed in a world where everyone easily and simply sings his/her words. I couldn’t find one instance of bad lip-synching, and that’s something of a successful tightrope walk in a film that needs to get a lot of things right at the same time.
The film is certainly famous in its own right, but it was also the star-making vehicle for the soon-to-be French legend Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve had been acting for a few years and was famous/infamous for having lived with and having a child with “bad boy” film director Roger Vadim (she came in after wife #1 Brigitte Bardot and before wife #3 Jane Fonda), having moved in with him at the age of 16. This was her breakout role, and it’s easy to see why. For one, she is breathtakingly beautiful, a topic which has been much noted and written about, but she is also sweet and tender and believable as a naïve, love-struck teen. Deneuve was later known as an ice queen, and you can see the coldness creeping into her performance in the last scene. But for the most part, her performance is touching, heartfelt, and light
Director Jacques Demy, a “not quite” New Wave director, liked to have characters in one film appear in another. Here his early Lola (1961) character Roland Cassard, played by Marc Michel, appears in this film in an important role. Demy kept directing after Umbrellas, doing some interesting and experimental work, but he never achieved the artistic and commercial success of this film. Most serious film students will recognize, perhaps with surprise, the name of his wife, New Wave legend writer-director Agnès Varda, the only female director to have been awarded an honorary Oscar for her work. (Demy passed away in 1990, and Varda lived another 29 years.)
The film’s connection with the Oscars isn’t unique, but belongs to a handful of films that made the list two years in a row. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 1964 Academy race, losing to Vittoria DeSica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. In 1965, it was apparently eligible in all categories, and gathered five nominations for the music and the writing. It didn’t win any, but this was the year of The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago.
If you’re reading this and haven’t yet seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, try to fill that gap in your film experience. It has references to a lot of other films, especially in its use of music, color, and production values. But no one has been able to succeed as well as Demy has in blending all these elements into such a delicate but heart-wrenching soufflé. It’s lovely to look at, a joy to listen to, and manages an emotional, quiet gut punch at the same time.