With the recent release of La La Land, it seems there has been a resurgence of interest in cinematic musical delights. One such example that crossed my path was the 1964 French musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (known in English as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
The director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, even points out this film as a key influence on what he created, so I thought it might be a good idea to check it out.
17 year old Geneviève (Catherine Denueve) is deeply in love with a young auto mechanic called Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Both wish to marry each other as soon as possible, even over the objections of Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon).
Alas, fate throws a spanner into the works as Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War. The two lovers spend their final night together before being forced to say goodbye.
After Guy has left, Geneviève discovers she’s pregnant. But with Guy not replying to her letters, Geneviève’s not sure if he even wants her anymore. With her mother’s encouragement, she is pointed in the direction of another suitor: a rich handsome man called Roland (Marc Michel). He wants to marry her, even after finding out about her pregnancy.
And so Geneviève must make a choice: Do what’s best for her and wait for Guy? Or do what’s best for the baby and marry Roland?
Split into 4 chapters, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (UoC) is a fabulous example of French cinema, as well as an innovative musical accomplishment. Whether we’re following Guy or Geneviève, each chapter eloquently leads us through the rise and fall of their relationship.
The music in question is of a recitative style, similar to most operas, where every word is sung. Occasionally this method does feel a tad overwhelming as it becomes a little difficult to interpret when each song starts and ends.
Though he doesn’t have a huge budget to work with, writer/director Jacques Demy doubles down in establishing a gorgeous visual design. A kaleidoscope of colour pops out in every scene, lending to the whimsical nature of the piece. (Though some of it, I assume, is down to the excellent work done in the restoration.)
One aspect of the film that I loved actually requires me to significantly spoil La La Land and UoC, so highlight below to read my thoughts! [SPOILERS]
One of the biggest flaws in La La Land (at least for me) is the sudden shift in the third act from real life normality to an over-the-top Hollywood ending.
For me this just betrays the entire point of the movie. That normal people can struggle as hard as they want, but most will never achieve their dreams. But in the case of UoC, the film’s build up and eventual ending is far more realistic. We get to see two people who deeply love and want to be with each other; and yet the intervention of fate tirelessly keeps them apart.
I do have one criticism, but it actually has nothing to do with the film. For some reason there is no dubbed version of UoC, and so the only version to view in English is subtitled.
While this doesn’t make for a lesser film, it does make for a lesser experience as I was forced to mostly read a musical as opposed to just listening to it. But of course this is entirely my fault for not being able to understand French!
Regardless of its language issues, UoC is a strong example of how romance through music will forever be a timeless tale.