Movie Review: ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ (1964)

(C) 2017 Criterion Collection /Janus Films

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg/Les Parapluies de Cherbourg  (1964)

Written and Directed by: Jacques Demy

Music by: Michel Legrand

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mirelle Perrey, Harald Wolff, Jean Champion

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Madame Emery: Stop crying. Look at me. People only die of love in movies.

On December 16, 1964, 20th Century Fox released (in the United States) writer-director Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg) a musical-romantic drama film set in France in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, it tells the story of two young lovers who are separated by circumstance – France’s colonial war in Algeria – and the consequences of that separation.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is billed as a musical, but unlike other films in the genre, such as South Pacific (1958), West Side Story (1961), or Fiddler on the Roof (1971), it is not a mix of comedy-drama delivered straight, punctuated with song-and-dance numbers that highlight important character arcs or turning points in the story.

Instead, Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a different type of musical that features a wall-to-wall score by three-time Academy Award-winning composer Michel Legrand and presents every word of the dialog in music. Called sung-through or through-composed, this style of musical resembles operas and oratorios, since it asks the singers to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech.[1]

The Movie

Catherine Deneuve stars as Geneviève Emery in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) Image Credit: Cine-Tamaris/Zeitgeist Films/Fox Lorber

An angelically beautiful Catherine Deneuve was launched into stardom by this glorious musical heart-tugger from Jacques Demy. She plays an umbrella-shop owner’s delicate daughter, glowing with first love for a handsome garage mechanic, played by Nino Castelnuovo. When the boy is shipped off to fight in Algeria, the two lovers must grow up quickly. Exquisitely designed in a kaleidoscope of colors and told entirely through the lilting songs of the great composer Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the most revered and unorthodox movie musicals of all time. – Packaging blurb, Criterion Collection’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Special Edition Blu-ray

Garage Attendant: I don’t like operas. Movies are better.

Demy – he wrote Les parapluies de Cherbourg as well as directed it – begins his tale in November 1957. In the Norman port city of Cherbourg, 20-year-old auto mechanic Guy Foucher (Castelnuovo) works in a garage owned by M. Aubin (Jean Champion) and lives with his elderly and frail Aunt Élise (Mirelle Perrey).

Aunt Élise: You seem very nervous.

Guy Foucher: I’m going out.

Aunt Élise: Alone?

Guy Foucher: None of your business.

Aunt Élise: It is.

Guy Foucher: With a girl.

Aunt Élise: Do you love her?

Guy Foucher: It could be.

Aunt Élise: Tell me the truth.

Guy Foucher: I love her.

Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

Guy is also in love with 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Deneuve), the “angelically beautiful” daughter of Madame Emery, the widowed owner of an umbrella shop (the eponymous Parapluies de Cherbourg), who disapproves of the relationship and wants her daughter to find a better prospective husband.

Geneviève Emery: You know, I think she suspects something.

Guy Foucher: Who?

Geneviève Emery: Mother. When I said I was going to the theater with Cecile, she gave me a funny look.

Guy Foucher: What kind of look?

Geneviève Emery: Like this. She knows Cecile hates shows, and I am a bad liar.

Guy Foucher: That’s what you say.

Geneviève Emery: I assure you I am.

Undeterred by Mme. Emery’s disapproval, the young lovers go to a performance of Bizet’s Carmen, followed by dancing the mambo at a cabaret. There, Guy and Geneviève plan to get married, even though they know that Mme. Emery will need to come around before they get engaged.

Guy Foucher: We’ll have children.

Geneviève Emery: I’ll name our daughter Francoise.

Guy Foucher: And if it is a boy?

Geneviève Emery: It will be a girl. We’ve always had girls in the family.

Guy Foucher: One o’clock.

Geneviève Emery: If Mother’s not asleep, what a scene there will be.

But even as Guy and Geneviève dream about marriage and raising a family together, France’s involvement in the Algerian War – which has been ongoing for three years with no end in sight – is about to give them a chilly and unwelcome wakeup call. Guy is of draft age, and since he is physically fit for the country’s obligatory military service, he receives a call-up notice for the Army.

Guy Foucher: I got drafted this morning, and I’ll be away for two years. We’ll talk about marriage later. With the war in Algeria, it will be a long time before I can come back.

Geneviève Emery: But I would never be able to live without you!

(C) 2017 Criterion Collection/Janus Films

A stricken Geneviève begs Guy not to go, but he knows hiding is not an option. On the eve of their parting, he takes Geneviève to his apartment, where they make love in his bedroom. The next day, to the strains of Michel Legrand’s haunting love theme – which was later reworked by American lyricist Norman Gimbel into the oft-covered I Will Wait for You – Geneviève and Guy say goodbye at the Cherbourg train station, where she promises to love him forever and wait for his return home two years hence.

And if Guy’s departure isn’t enough, there are ominous signs that the course of love won’t run smoothly for Geneviève. Her mother’s business is not going too well, and Mme. Emery must produce a considerable sum of money to pay her taxes, or she’ll lose everything. Furthermore, Geneviève is pregnant after her assignation with Guy, which complicates Geneviève’s plans far more than she figured.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is divided into three parts:

Part One: The Departure

Part Two: The Absence

Part Three: The Return

Madame Emery: I saw the cutest little rompers at the department store.

Geneviève Emery: Admit that you’re pleased.

Madame Emery: I’d be more pleased if this baby had a father, and you had a husband.

Geneviève Emery: Guy will come back.

Madame Emery: Guy or someone else.

Geneviève Emery: Absence is a funny thing. I feel like Guy left years ago. I look at this photo, and I forget what he really looks like. When I think of him, it’s this photo that I see.

My Take

In Umbrellas, Demy found an ingenious way to extend the form of the screen musical, restoring its effervescence in part by reducing its scale to something recognizably human. Rather than surge and lunge in elephantine production numbers, the entire movie would flow on an uninterrupted current of music. The singing and color would evoke the piercing immediacy of first love, even as the abstraction granted a very contemporary distancing effect. – Jim Ridley, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: A Finite Forever

I was born in March of 1963, nine months before the setting of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s December 1963-set coda. As a result, I didn’t see the movie until many years later when it aired on Miami’s WPBT Channel 2, South Florida’s PBS station. I am not sure what year it was, but I was old – and patient – enough to watch a French-language film which, like an opera, delivers all its dialogue through the idiom of music. Recitative music, and not in the artificial stylings of songs.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opened in France on January 19, 1964, and premiered Stateside on December 16, 1964. My late mother told me – when WPBT showed it lo! So many years ago – that she saw it in a theater, so I like to think that she watched it with my Paris-raised father before he died in February of 1965. It’s a movie that each of my parents would have liked for varied reasons; Mom for the clever and colorful design and Michel Legrand’s music, and Dad because, as Mom loved to say, he was more French in his ways than he was Colombian.

Although The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical, it is also a sober exploration of life, love, and how reality often obfuscates the plans that we make, especially those that we formulate when we are young and ruled mostly by emotions and hormones. As in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, Les parapluies de Cherbourg’s Guy and Geneviève start out believing that Amor Vincit Omnia, only to find out that “forever” is finite, and love – more often than not – does not conquer all.

As the late Roger Ebert wrote in 2004 after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s post-restoration theatrical release:

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” did not initiate a new movie style (although Demy tried it again in “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” in 1967, with (Catherine) Deneuve, her sister Francoise Dorleac and Gene Kelly). But it is remembered as a bold original experiment, and now that it is restored and back in circulation, it can also be remembered as a surprisingly effective film, touching and knowing and, like Deneuve, ageless.

Like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, I am, at heart, a rank sentimentalist. I’m also a sucker for heart-tugging romantic scores by Michel Legrand; he won the 1971 Academy Award for his evocative score for Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42. So when I saw that the Criterion Collection’s 2017 Blu-ray was on sale on Amazon for $19.99, I didn’t hesitate; I ordered it.

The film – which is part of an unofficial trilogy by Jacques Demy (the other two are 1961’s Lola, which starred Marc Michel as Roland Cassard, a role he reprises here, and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort) – a smorgasbord for the eyes and a feast for the ears. Bernard Evain’s production design is complemented ably by costume designer Jacqueline Moreau’s work. (Viewers will note that the characters’ clothes often are chosen to match the wallpaper or paint job of the rooms that they’re in.)

In addition, Demy’s director of photography is Jean Rabier, who was a frequent collaborator with director Claude Chabrol (Les Biches, La Femme infidèle). For The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Ranier mixes a vivid color palette with gritty realism to give the movie a certain ambiance that is simultaneously dream-like but grounded in the reality of late 1950s France.

As James Ridley writes in his essay, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: A Finite Forever:

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I saw Umbrellas for the first time, under near-perfect conditions—in a restored print at San Francisco’s glorious Castro Theatre, with an audience so besotted that they anticipated the melodies. I expected a mawkish pastiche— the judgment rendered in 1964 by the New York Times’s reliably fusty Bosley Crowther, who dismissed the film as “a cinematic confection so shiny and sleek and sugar-sweet—so studiously sentimental—it comes suspiciously close to a spoof.”

What Demy delivers instead is the most affecting of movie musicals, and perhaps the fullest expression of a career-long fascination with the entwining of real life, chance, and the bewitching artifice of cinematic illusion.

This is a lovely, if often bittersweet, film. I get misty-eyed every time I watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The combination of Guy and Geneviève’s story arc with Demy’s visuals and Michel Legrand’s jazz-infused wall-to-wall score made me fall in love with Umbrellas. It will do the same to you.

The 2017 Criterion Collection Blu-ray comes with a nice suite of extra features. They are:

  • 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Once Upon a Time . . . “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary
  • Interview from 2014 with film scholar Rodney Hill
  • French television interview from 1964 featuring director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand discussing the film
  • Audio recordings of interviews with actor Catherine Deneuve (1983) and Legrand (1991) at the National Film Theatre in London
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Jim Ridley (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: A Finite Forever)

[1] Needless to say, none of the actors in the main cast were trained singers, so everyone had to lip-sync and other voices (José Bartel, Danielle Licari, Christiane Legrand, Georges Blaness, Claudine Meunier, Claire Leclerc, and Michel Legrand provided the voices for seven of the main cast members. For instance, Catherine Deneuve was dubbed by Licari. And Nino Castelnuovo was dubbed by Bartel.

Online Source: Roger Ebert review, April 2, 2004.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

%d bloggers like this: