I ramble quite often about certain films existing on my shame list for a far lengthier period of time than I want to admit. Indeed, in this case it is often a definitive classic of cinema, usually one from New Hollywood or likewise, ones that make it well into the top hundred lists of IMDB or AFI. These films often live up to their established reputations, only occasionally proving a disappointment. In other instances they are simply films that people of various walks of life and cinematic tastes seem to happily coalesce around. One example of this comes in the way of Jacque Tati's Playtime. Indeed, between its zaniness, grand vision and genuinely engaging cinematic quality it proves to be adored by all who encounter it, but has recently fallen to the wayside due to copyright issues and has since gone out of print. In contrast to this is something like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I had heard countless mentions of between dear friends and within various blogs. To encounter this film has long been a goal of mine and while the means with which I did so were less than ideal, it was more than a long time coming, and falls in the likes of Playtime or Night of the Hunter in the immediate and undefined perfection that all can find relatable. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is perhaps the most musical of all musicals in that all but one of the lines of dialogue are delivered through singing and, nonetheless, manages to flow with all the sentimentality and swelling emotion of the best melodrama. Indeed, Jacques Demy's work possesses what may well be the most refined and focused of color palettes ever committed to film, clearly proving a point of inspiration for the likes of Pedro Almodovar and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is cinema at a level of artistic expression rarely achieved, wherein each frame of the film, where it to be frozen could double as a singular work of art, a feat I have only seen one other time in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. Here though, one can clearly see the benefit of Agnes Varda on Demy's work and the art historical infusion such a relationship can inspire, never mind the wonderful and always ethereal performance of Catherine Deneuve, which is balanced perfectly with the remaining members of the all-singing cast.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg might be visually expansive and grand in proportions, but the heart of the narrative is about as traditionally melodramatic as they come. The narrative focuses initially on Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo) a mechanic in Cherbourg who happens to take a particular liking to a local umbrella sales girl named Genevieve Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and she indeed shares his affections. Although the two are seemingly inseparable, even planning a life with a child, when Guy is called off to serve in the French Army things change drastically, particularly since Guy's service is extended for a rather lengthy amount of time. Knowing the social shame that is associated with single motherhood, Genevieve's mother and employer Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) insists that she find a suitor and trick him into believing him to be the father immediately, finding such a person in Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Things begin quite rocky with the newly formed couple, particularly considering Genevieve's unwillingness paired with her continuing communique with Guy. However, it comes to a point when she can no longer hide her pregnancy resulting in a confrontation wherein Roland asserts that he will raise the child as his own out of his admiration for Genevieve, leading to the two becoming married days later. Eventually, a few years later, Guy does return, not only to find that the umbrella shop has been closed and replaced with an appliance store, but that Genevieve has moved away as well. Confused, Guy is told by his mother and her nurse Madeleine (Ellen Farner) that she has married and is with child. Initially distraught and seeking comfort through call girls after losing his job, Guy is afforded a huge amount of inheritance from his late mother, wherein he proceeds to marry Madeleine and have a child with her. The two now happy, open up a gas station of their own and on Christmas Eve night, the two plan to spend the evening together, Guy saying goodbye to his son Francois and Madeline. Only moments later, Genevieve with her daughter Francoise arrives to get gas. After a cold exchange, doubled by the weather outside, Guy returns to his family, while Genevieve drives off into the night.
The saccharine and synthetic look of this film draw another filmic comparison immediately within my mind to Agnes Varda's delightfully scathing critique of modern marriage through impressionism that is La Bonheur. Much like her film, and the earlier mentioned Playtime, the visually stunning palettes of the various films layers on a degree of pitch perfect irony about the terrible events occurring on screen. Here the depression and sadness emerge from the inability to assure and enact upon a love as a result of social expectations and governmental demands. The manner with which the street is lit within this film is both inconceivable but absolutely perfect, again a sign of an art historical element that is undoubtedly due credit to Demy's wife Agnes Varda. The street implodes in a wash of purples and blues that evoke Van Gogh, wherein the stunning visual nature of Starry Night, also comes from a man deeply depressed. As Guy and Genevieve walk up and down this street, the same hues encompass their bodies, implying that even in this moment of serenity that their futures are at a dire loss. Indeed, perhaps the most telling scene of the entire film emerges when Roland, now attempting to court the broken hearted Genevieve plays a game involving the donning of a crown. Here the shot captures Genevieve in the center of the camera as Deneuve plays up with a perfectly composed stare into the camera, almost as if to demand that the viewer takes pleasure in the ethereal spectacle on display, while also being completely reminded of the way in which she and her character are exploited both within and outside of the diegetic space, an occurrence that is redelivered, although not quite as jarringly when the ironically veiled Genevieve is made up to appear like the Virgin Mother. All this considered, it is also fascinating to consider the moments when Demy does decide to drain the color from sequences, most specifically during Guy's return from service, wherein the same purple lit streets are replaced with grays and whites, thus denying it the lush flourishing space in favor of a vapid palette, one reflecting the reality with which Guy has to return, or even suggesting the world of war he is bringing back to Cherbourg.
Key Scene: It is one wholly paced musical reverie and as such can only be treated as a perfect moment of cinematic spectacle, although within this there are particular flares of absolute genius, as is the case with the train departure sequence. Also, it is worth mentioning that Michel Legrand's score is amazing.
This is a film that is currently difficult to come by, as such one must get creative with how they attain a copy, but trust me it is very much worth the effort. It appears to also make the rounds on MUBI so could prove the route to go viewing wise.