An Appreciation – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, I like to sing. I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. The characters in Jacques Demy’s film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) like to sing as well, and luckily they are much better than I am. 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. We’ve all felt much like the two main characters of this film—hopeful, alive, full of love and optimism. There isn’t a feeling quite like young love, that fleeting span of time when you believe everything is right in the world and nothing could possibly go wrong. Whether or not that is something that will last is different for everyone, but as this movie shows, that feeling is one of a kind, and should not be taken for granted.
The interesting thing about this film is that it is not made as a traditional musical. There are not separate scenes with characters breaking out into song and dance. Instead, it is made in the style of an operetta, meaning that the characters sing the entirety of the film. The main characters, the supporting characters, and even the actors playing bit parts all sing their dialogue. They move throughout their world like normal, but are singing throughout the entire time. You may think that this could be somewhat grating and tiring at first, but after a few minutes it’s surprising how easily acceptable the style is. Composed by Michel Legrand, the music and singing never feel repetitive, but are always moving and unfolding, full of energy and emotion. The famous song “I Will Wait For You” dominates the film; it is the main theme, and it is an incredibly moving and melodramatic piece of music. (So popular is the song, that it has been covered and sampled from the likes of Liza Minnelli to Futurama.) This is a tricky line to walk; the music could have easily taken the film over and distracted us from the main plot, but somehow it allows the story to be presented completely while still being a main attraction.
The story is broken up into three parts. The beginning deals with the joy and happiness that come with being in love. Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) a 20-year-old auto mechanic, is deeply in love with Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), a 17-year-old girl who sells umbrellas with her mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) in the small town of Cherbourg, France. Guy has a sickly aunt that he looks after with her caretaker, Madeleine (Ellen Farner). An interesting element is that the quiet Madeleine clearly is in love with Guy, but he is unaware of it at first because of his strong feelings for someone else. For Geneviève, her mother strongly disapproves of her relationship with Guy, thinking that she is too young to know what real love is, and frequently tries to make her realize that there is more out there for her than just handsome auto mechanics. But whatever opinions other people have, Guy and Geneviève feel that they were meant to be with each other. They sneak away from their families and spend as much time as possible together. One aspect I admired was how emotional Demy allowed his characters to become. You can almost argue that the love they share borders on being over the top, particularly in the part where Demy shoots them literally gliding through the air. But this is appropriate; the first act is set up this way so that it can be compared to how different the latter part of the story will become.
Their world is turned upside down when it is learned that Guy has been drafted to go and fight in the Algerian War. The two spend their last moments together, afraid of what could happen but hopeful that their relationship can last past this situation. They make love their last night together, and she sees him off in an emotionally poignant scene at a train station. The second part of the movie deals with Guy and Geneviève’s time away from each other. One of the most difficult things for a relationship to go through is time and separation, and their bond is no exception. Lonely and depressed, Geneviève finds it difficult to continue thinking about Guy and not be with him. It also doesn’t help that he infrequently writes to her; she rarely hears from him and doesn’t know how he is doing. This allows outside forces to press their influence upon her. If all Geneviève hears is her mother’s insistence to move on from Guy and no other alternative, she will eventually start to listen. When the shop falls into financial insecurity, Geneviève feels herself pushed toward the affections of Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a Parisian jeweler who not only loves Geneviève, but also is there to show her that love. Even when it is revealed that Geneviève is pregnant (with Guy’s child), Roland still is willing to marry her and raise the child as their own. This allows Geneviève to have financial security for both herself and her mother, but as we see in the wedding scene, she isn’t particularly overcome with happiness.
It’s interesting to note just how much the opening parts of the film contrast to the closing passages. While they are both emotional and fit together as a cohesive whole, the two do seem to differ in tone. When Guy returns to Cherbourg from the war, limping from a leg injury, the tone of the film feels a little darker, a little more serious than when we started. He sports facial hair, and does not smile as much as he did. The war certainly has affected Guy’s overall personality; gone is the optimistic young person we first met, replaced by a man weathered by his experience in the military. After learning that Geneviève married another man, and that his aunt passed while he was away, Guy attempts halfheartedly to re-enter normal life. But life can’t be normal when you are physically reminded of your time in warfare and realizing that the one person you thought you were meant for has married someone else. He gets fired from his old job, goes on a drinking binge, and ends up sleeping with a prostitute who he accidentally calls “Geneviève.” When all seems to be lost, Guy finds inspiration in Madeleine, who still loves and cares for him. They end up marrying and having a child, and through her Guy finds the motivation to open his own auto shop and go into business for himself.