Blu-Ray Review – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
One of the great expressions of youthful love and the unforeseen circumstances of life, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is one of the great musical fantasies of the 1960s. Filled with life, color, and a beautiful score composed by Michel Legrand, the film tells the story of two lovers whose dreams clash head on with the realities of their world. It was already a part of Criterion’s The Essential Jacques Demy box set (Spine #713), but now has been released as a standalone entry (Spine #716). Those who already own the box set won’t see much to entice them to double dip, but for those who have yet to dive in, this package offers everything necessary to appreciate such an amazing picture.
I said in my appreciation from years ago: “This is one of the best musicals I’ve seen, a sweeping love story about a young romance succumbing to the stark realities of life and the inevitability of growing up.” The influence of Umbrellas is unquestioned. Most recently, Damien Chazelle named it as a major point of inspiration behind his own musical, La La Land (2016). We’re introduced to the umbrella shop girl Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and auto mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Both are head over heels in love with each other. Their passion is so strong that the environments they exist in appear to shimmer with brighter colors. They both live meager lives, but know for certain that they were always meant to be together.
Unfortunately, life had a different plan. Soon enough, Guy gets drafted into the French army and is sent out to fight in Algeria. As loneliness sets in and economic hardships begin to take a toll, a pregnant Genevieve starts to lose the passion she once had for Guy, and starts to listen to her mother who gingerly suggests that she consider the courtship of Roland (Marc Michel), a jeweler who would provide financial stability to her and her child.
The true tragedy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it doesn’t contain any villains. Genevieve’s mother is not cruel, but compassionate. Roland may be a bit of a stiff, but he cares for Genevieve and wants the best for her. This is what makes the third act so heartbreaking, as an injured Guy returns home to find a place that doesn’t shimmer like it used to, and the woman he loved having moved on after years of being separated. There’s no accounting for the unpredictability of life – what we thought were true and will always be could and most likely will change. Growing up we become wiser to reality, but that’s what makes the memory and nostalgia for youth such a powerful force. Demy and Legrand understood this, and amplified it with an ending that is so perfect in its subtle execution that the emotion behind it becomes almost overwhelming.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a near perfect film of its kind. It takes the style and artifice of the big budget Hollywood musical and strips it down to raw, unbridled emotion. The further I get from the age of the characters, the more I appreciate how strong young love is, and how fleeting it can be.
According to the booklet that accompanies the blu ray, the digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from the three-strip separation masters and the original camera negative. The restoration from 2013 is the same one that was done for The Essential Jacques Demy boxset. The visual quality is stunning. Pastel colors shine with vibrancy. Backgrounds and costumes feel soft and delicate. There were no discernable scratches or dirt marks, and everything looked clean while maintaining steady film grain.
The 5.1 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 1963 monaural mix and a 1992 restoration. Once again, it’s the same one that was done from the boxset. There are no pops or hisses to be found. The sound does feel a hair thin, but not enough to be a deal breaker. Michel Legrand’s music comes through nice and clear, while keeping balance between high and low points. When the orchestra hit a powerful crescendo, it wasn’t overbearing to the point where I had to lower the volume.
As previously mentioned, this release transposes everything that was already included in the boxset, including the cover art. The central highlight is the hour-long documentary from 2008, Once Upon a Time… “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, that traces the conception, development, release, and response to the film. This is the most in depth of all the supplemental material, and is required viewing for those that enjoyed the main feature. Another good piece is the 2014 interview with film scholar Rodney Hill, who discusses Jacques Demy’s approach to filmmaking and how he fit in with his French counterparts, most of whom were take part of the French New Wave movement. The written piece, “A Finite Forever,” written by the late Jim Ridley, is a lengthy examination of how Demy affected him on a personal level while providing further insights into Demy’s style and career.
Beyond the documentary and the interview with Hill, the rest of the special features are relatively small by comparison. The French television interview between Demy and Legrand is nice, but much of the information was already covered in the documentary. Interestingly enough, Catherine Deneuve – who became an international star after Umbrellas was released – is oddly missing when it comes to new interviews. We do have plenty of archival footage, as well as a short audio recording from 1983 (along with an audio recording from Legrand in 1991), but an interview specifically for the disk is nowhere to be found. Maybe it was due to scheduling, but it would have been nice to get her perspective now that she’s so far removed from the production. Also, the lack of a commentary track is a missed opportunity. Sure, the information we would’ve got from the commentary would have already been a part of the other features, but getting the info while watching the film is always appreciated.
The only way I wouldn’t recommend picking up this release is if you already own the Demy boxset. There’s nothing here that would justify buying it again. But if you do not own it yet, I would suggest putting it at the top of your “must have” list. A release like this is what makes Criterion so great at what they do: a great movie, a pristine restoration, lovely packaging, and a wealth of extra material to dig through – you can’t really go wrong with all of that.