The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Directed by Jacques Demy

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“People only die of love in the movies.”

So apparently I love musicals, or at least I loved this one.  Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells the story of two young lovers who are separated by circumstances out of their control, moving quickly through the months so that things happen very quickly, almost as if you are fast forwarding through life.

The film paints in very broad strokes, setting up the two main characters, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) as well as their respective ‘other’ lovers, Roland and Madeleine.  There are also the two maternal characters in Guy’s and Genevieve’s lives.  For Genevieve it’s her mother (Anne Vernon) who disapproves of Guy from the get go, and for Guy it’s his Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey), old and bedridden so that you just know she’s going to pass away when Guy is already at his low point in the story.

The plot mechanizations are immediately clear from the start.  They are young and in love, but things are so sweet and sentimental that they have to take a turn for the worse. Broken up into three parts, part one is already titled “The Departure,” and soon enough Genevieve’s mother, in expressing her concern that Guy would ever be able to support her daughter, suggests that at twenty years old he hasn’t even completed his military service.  Sure enough minutes later he’ll get his draft notice, sending him away to the army for two years.

Though they intend to remain together, especially when Genevieve learns she’s pregnant, it’s clear and necessary that they drift apart.  It’s not that he becomes a career military man or she decides to go to college but that they merely embrace the other romantic interests introduced in the first act whom they were previously unwilling to consider.

Despite being sixteen, and now pregnant, Genevieve comes to accept the marriage proposal from a diamond salesman named Roland (Marc Michel).  He’s probably a good deal older than her, and his request, delivered to Genevieve’s mother after he’s only met Genevieve a handful of times, is incredibly silly.  It’s a type of silliness the film revels in, a sincerity that is almost satirical.  In a matter of minutes Genevieve will remain steadfast in her love for Guy, then accept Roland’s proposal, then go through with the wedding, one that in its austerity reminded me of the comically sad wedding in Riding in Cars With Boys.

Guy doesn’t realize Genevieve has married another man and left Cherbourg until he returns home from the military.  Madeleine, his aunt’s caregiver, remains there excited to greet him, but Guy ignores her in favor of stewing in his own misery.  He’s lonely, despondent and self-defeating.  He will antagonize his boss and quit his job, then lose his aunt, then pine for Madeleine’s affections because he can’t bear to be alone. Though she confronts this likely possibility that his sudden urge to be with her comes from despair, she accepts his own de facto proposal.

Soon he’s got his life together, and then we cut forward four years, to see Guy and Madeleine with a young son, a picture perfect happy family.  They remain in Cherbourg where he now runs his own gas station.

When Madeleine runs an errand with their son, a car pulls up which is inevitably driven buy Genevieve, with the daughter fathered by Guy.  They share one last brief conversation in which they accept the way things are only because things are quite good for each of them.  In that satisfaction they can acknowledge and appreciate their past relationship while noting how it’s shaped them into the people they are today.  Then she leaves, Madeleine returns, and the camera cranes up, up and away as the music swells.  F*ck yeah.

Why is this film so fantastic?  It’s full of moments so contrived and yes so damn effective.  The cinematography is beautiful, as is the almost comically colorful sets.  It’s a picturesque dreamscape, one you don’t mind just hanging around in, and it doesn’t hurt that Guy and Genevieve make quite the attractive pair.

The quickness with which the film moves through momentous life events gets to be amusing at a certain point, but that never cannibalizes their emotional resonance.  Even though I never thought much of Guy and Genevieve as individual characters, there is something almost magical between them, I suppose just because the absolute earnestness with which they yearn for each other comes from deep within most of us.  When we see how badly they need to be in love with each other we can imagine or recall or simply look forward to moments when we have felt and will feel the same.

It also helps that the music is mesmerizing, subtly at first before it really grabs you by the hand and plunges you into its orbit.  I don’t consider myself a fan of musicals, mostly because while I find the comic musicals like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon charming, they don’t often stick with me once the film is over.  That being said this one probably will, I think because for a genre which is already so stylized and ‘out there,’ melodrama might work more than comedy, well at least for me.

I think to enjoy a musical you have to enjoy its absurdity.  Because I don’t watch that many, when this film first began I wondered how the constant music and the rhythm with which characters spoke (it’s all singing dialogue, as opposed to ordinary dialogue and then a musical number) would bother me.  It’s a device you recognize early on, but before I knew it I didn’t even notice it.  It’s a language that you may not be able to speak but you can at least learn to understand within the film’s short running time.

So I was just so taken with this film, and I still can’t quite believe it because of how sensational, broad and underdeveloped parts of the story are.  It’s just two attractive people madly in love, and somehow that’s enough, at least when it’s constructed in this way.

The film is quite powerful, and at least two moments in the film (the end of Part One and the end of the film as a whole) were perfectly cinematic, a perfect combination of image and sound to stir up some emotion and sense of awe.  In the first, we watch in a single take as Guy boards the train to leave town while Genevieve is left behind.  The camera moves along with the two of them, down the line of the stationary train until Guy hops onboard, and suddenly the camera moves in sync with the departing train.  All the while Genevieve grows smaller and smaller in the distance while the music swells in just the perfect way.

The same thing happens at the end, but where the former moment seems to be powerful regardless of context (just the combination of image and sound), this one works because of what we’ve seen these characters go through, no matter how quickly those moments were presented.  It’s just the sequencing of life events and then the sudden ability to look back to where it all started that stirs up a rousing finale.

Up Next: Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Firemen’s Ball (1967), The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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