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The Sublime Beauty of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Criterion

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By Christopher Weedman.

When celebrated French film director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand were experiencing difficulty securing financing for Les parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Italian producer Carlo Ponti remarked to Demy, “I really like your story. But you should shoot it in black and white, since color’s too expensive. You should change the title, since it tells us nothing. And use normal dialogue, not people singing.” Ponti’s assessment is laughable and odd, especially considering that he co-produced Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme/A Woman is a Woman (1961) a few years earlier. Another rule-breaking musical of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard’s film is more radical than Demy’s by perpetually interrupting the music (sometimes after only a few seconds) in a Brechtian-like attempt to distance the audience from the genre’s sentimentality and uninhibited displays of emotion through song and dance. While the temperaments of Godard and Demy could not be any more dissimilar, A Woman is a Woman and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are two musicals where their avant-garde style is what gives them their unique personality and charm.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is fueled by its vibrant fusion of color and music: namely the pastel-colored universe created by Demy, cinematographer Jean Rabier, costume designer Jacqueline Moreau, and production designer Bernard Evein; and the idiosyncratic blending of jazz and opera by Legrand. The music broke the rules laid down by the classical Hollywood musical by having Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, and the rest of the cast sing all of their dialogue in a recitative (speak singing) style, which was subsequently dubbed by professional singers such as Danielle Licari and José Bartel. This recitative style enabled Demy to realize his desire to break the musical free from the restraints of having the music interrupted by dramatic exposition.

Umbrellas 02The result is an enchanting cinematic experience. Like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Demy’s follow-up Les demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, which my wife and I have fond memories of seeing in 35mm at the National Film Theatre in London in May 2016), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is among those intensely emotive experiences that, for me, demonstrates the sublime beauty that the cinema can create. The Criterion Collection has done a tremendous service by issuing the gorgeous 2K digital restoration by Digimage from 2013 (previously only available in the United States in Criterion’s expensive 2014 box set, The Essential Jacques Demy) as a standalone release on Blu-ray and DVD, which will make their fine efforts available to the larger audience that it warrants.

The film opens with a breathtaking panorama of the harbor in the seaside town of Cherbourg in the French region of Normandy. Demy shows a young man in a yellow rain jacket walking a bicycle alongside a diagonal line painted on the street’s cobblestone rocks. The director’s camera tilts down to show a bird’s-eye view of a series of random, anonymous villagers passing by one another carrying different colored umbrellas as the rain falls gently from overhead. The villagers pass by each other casually as they travel to their intended destinations. The sequence visually implies how the lives of others intersect in casual and unexpected ways: a recurring theme that Demy also explored in his French classics Lola (1961), La Baie des anges/The Bay of Angels (1963), and The Young Girls of Rochefort, as well as his sole Hollywood feature, the underrated Model Shop (1969). Years before DC and Marvel Studios popularized the contemporary trend of making interconnected films with characters sharing the same fictional universe, Demy’s films feature recurring characters whose lives intersect. These characters may form brief bonds with one another, but as quickly as these relationships can be formed, they can just as quickly fall apart.

A similar fate will befall The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s lovers, Guy Foucher (Castelnuovo) and Geneviève Emery (Deneuve). The couple are hopelessly in love and, despite not having known each other for long, have already begun planning their marriage and life together. Whereas Geneviève dreams of them having a daughter, Guy instead longs for a son that they can raise together in the back of his own gas station. This desire (an autobiographical allusion to Demy’s own mechanic father, Raymond Demy, who was unapproving of his son’s filmmaking ambitions and instead wanted him to take over the family’s gas station) is underscored visually by the model gas station that sits in his bedroom in the flat that he shares with his Aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey), an invalid who is taken care of by Madeleine (Ellen Farner). This model sits next to a toy ship, which, interestingly, also foregrounds the film’s intertextual connections to dramatist-filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy (1931-36). Guy’s male counterpart in the Pagnol films, Marius (Pierre Fresnay), possesses dreams of living a life of adventure on the high seas.

However, while Marius’ wanderlust prompts him to leave his beloved Fanny (Orane Demazis) at the end of Pagnol’s first installment, Marius (1931), Guy is separated from Geneviève due to outside forces. The couple’s marriage plans are rejected by Geneviève’s widowed mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), who feels they are too young to marry and, more importantly, wants her daughter to make a more sensible decision and wed someone who can support her financially. Madame Emery’s sentiments stem, in part, out of fear that Geneviève will make the same mistake she did and marry someone of less financial means. Consequently, Madame Emery instead pressures Geneviève to wed Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a genial diamond merchant, who has tried to woo her affections by offering to buy her mother’s pearl necklace that they need to sell to pay their taxes. To make matters worse, the couple are distressed to learn that Guy has been drafted into the Algerian War (1954-62), which has been raging for the past three years. The couple consummate their love the night before Guy is to leave. However, despite their plans to marry once he returns, the trajectory of their lives will diverge forever.

There is a poignancy to the story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is capable of making even cynical audiences (myself included) shed a tear. As mentioned, the film’s narrative is indebted to the Marseille Trilogy. Demy divides The Umbrellas of Cherbourg into three acts (“The Departure,” “The Absence,” and “The Return”), which mirrors Marius and the other two installments (Fanny, 1932; and César, 1936) in terms of their narrative structure and thematic content. Each story focuses on young lovers from French provincial cities, who are separated under tragic circumstances. Likewise, in each, the female lead discovers she is pregnant and, consequently, is pressured by her family to marry a chivalrous surrogate (instead of her true love) to avoid the unwanted social stigma surrounding giving birth out of wedlock.

Criterion’s standalone release of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg boasts the same bonus features from their excellent box set The Essential Jacques Demy. This should be welcome news for those admirers of the film who did not purchase the previous release due to its $125 price tag. These supplements include a very informative 2008 documentary from director Marie Genin and her co-writer Serge July (narrated by Peter Leonard and produced originally for the television series Once Upon a Time…) that covers the film’s production history. Among those interviewed include Demy’s wife, director Agnès Varda; children Rosalie Varda-Demy and Mathieu Demy; actor Marc Michel; singing double Christiane Legrand; film directors Christophe Honore and Bernard Toublanc-Michel; film producer Gérard Vaugeois; historian Benjamin Stora; and, most importantly, composer Michel Legrand, who fondly recalls his creative electricity that he shared with Demy.

The documentary is illuminating in discussing the film in relationship to the socio-political context of the Algerian War, which Demy touches upon obliquely through the letters sent to Geneviève by Guy, and the postwar scenes of the wounded Guy having difficulty readjusting to civilian life. This director’s emphasis on the personal over the political can, in part, be explained by Varda’s comment that her husband preferred not to be involved in political activism. She reveals that Demy would not voice his social and political views publicly, but, at the same time, felt a deep connection with the working-class due to his childhood upbringing as the son of an automobile mechanic. There is also useful discussion of the social conditions that influence Geneviève’s decision to marry Roland. As explained, abortions were still illegal throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Despite the development of the birth control pill in the United States in 1960, only ten percent of women were using them in France by the end of the decade.

Another of the disc’s highlights is a 23-minute interview with Hofstra University professor Rodney Hill, who observes astutely how Demy’s film bridges the gap between the New Wave and “The Tradition of Quality” – the latter a series of studio-polished productions (typically literary adaptations) that François Truffaut attacked polemically in 1954 in order to lay down the ethos of the personal auteur director. Hill condenses his argument from his perceptive 2008 essay “The New Wave Meets the Tradition of Quality: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in which he argues how the film filters elements of both of these movements through Demy’s own unique and eclectic cinematic style.

In addition, the disc boasts an 11-minute extract featuring Demy and Legrand being interviewed on a 1964 episode of the French television program Cinépanorama, where Legrand patiently endures a condescending question from the interviewer (indicative of critical perceptions during the period) about why composing for the cinema is considered to be a lesser artform in France. The always charming Legrand provides a much more enlightening response than the question deserves, by discussing how it is an incredibly difficult task due to the constraints. He insists that a film composer must “find the freedom in the constraints.” The disc is rounded out by a useful essay by the late film critic Jim Ridley; a pair of audio interview excerpts with Deneuve and Legrand being interviewed at the National Film Theater in London; a six-minute featurette on the film’s painstaking digital restoration; and the trailer produced to promote the restoration, which premiered in 2013 as part of the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival.

References

Hill, Rodney (2008). “The New Wave Meets the Tradition of Quality: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Cinema Journal vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 27-50.

Truffaut, François (1954). “Une Certaine Tendance du cinema français/A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” Cahiers du Cinéma no. 32. Translated in Cahiers du Cinéma in English no. 1, Jan. 1966 pp. 31-41.

Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Pop Culture Studies in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His scholarship and criticism has appeared in Cinema Retro, Film International, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His article “A Dark Exilic Vision of Sixties Britain: Gothic Horror and Film Noir Pervading Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s The Servant” is forthcoming in Cinema Journal.

4 Comments for “The Sublime Beauty of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Criterion”

  1. A very good review and if it is the same Rodney Hill who wrote that superb 1995 essay on KISS ME DEADLY, it is gratifying to learn that another Doctor has “come in from the cold”.

  2. It is indeed the same Rodney Hill. Coincidentally, he was one of my predecessors in the Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow program at Georgia Tech. He was there a few years before me, so I’ve never met him personally. However, he is an excellent scholar and I always enjoy reading his work.

  3. Christopher Sharrett

    Chris,
    A nice comment on Demy, one of the superb radical humanists of the New Wave, and a transformative figure of the musical.

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Chris. It is a great to see Demy finally getting the respect he richly deserves.

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