Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964)

This ranks as one of the most bizarre movies I have seen. From the first line to the last, everything is sung. I don’t mean this is a musical, where there are actual songs that tell the story. It is a regular movie, with regular scenes and dialog, but the actors sing all of their lines. Try it. Get your favorite song going in your head, and then sing these words along with the music. That’s this movie! I couldn’t believe my ears for the first couple of minutes, but after a while I got used to it, and it really wasn’t too bad! Actually, the singing adds charm to what is otherwise a pretty minimalist story.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) are a couple of young lovebirds whose prospects are threatened by the clash between Guy’s working-class position and the aspirations of Genevieve’s scrabbling, bourgeois mother. They are devastated when Guy gets drafted, so they commemorate their last date by finally doing the big nasty. You can guess how that turns out. Guy goes to Algeria, leaving Genevieve in Cherbourg with a bun in the oven. Genevieve is determined to wait for Guy, but her mom takes the opportunity to try to pair her daughter with Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond merchant (Marc Michel, reprising his role from another Jacques Demy movie called “Lola”). It’s actually harder than you’d expect to root for Guy at that point, because he rarely writes to Genevieve, and damn, that Roland is charming!

At the risk of spoiling the plot, I’m just going to say that nothing really dramatic happens in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (By the way, the title comes from the fact that Genevieve and her mom run an umbrella shop.) This film is driven by vibrant, colorful sets and winsome performances from the cast, who manage to make the singing-the-lines thing work. The movie was a nice introduction to director Jacques Demy, who is apparently quite accomplished. His work has been described as the “tragedy of the everyday,” but I don’t really see “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” as tragedy. To me the film is about how life doesn’t necessarily go in the direction we think we want it to, but there are still great opportunities for love and happiness if we face forward and embrace them. The wistful final scene is tinged with regret, but it also contains a hopeful message about refusing to give in to regret over lost opportunities.

3 stars

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