The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)

Year of Release: 1964     Directed by Jacques Demy.  Starring Catharine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, and Marc Michel.

At the 1964 Cannes film festival, a jury headed by the German master of noir, Fritz Lang, selected Jacques Demy’s colorful and sweetly romantic musical as the best film.  Not only do I agree with that decision, but I would easily rank this musical as one of the top five ever filmed.

Between the bright pastels that saturate nearly every scene, the accentuated camera angles, tracking shots, and occasional quick zooms, the film has distinct, yet warm and charming visuals, which possibly could have been an influence on Wes Anderson.  If he ever directed a musical, I am convinced it would be visually very similar to this.

The story is a basic musical romance: girl and guy meet and are hopelessly smitten with one another. Her mother disapproves and wants her to marry the considerate rich guy for security. The first guy is called away (drafted), and she is heartbroken and begins to consider the rich guy’s proposal despite a major caveat. However, there is a twist to the otherwise standard story in the end of the second act and the third act which causes the guy and girl to reflect on selfless love versus infatuation.

Michel Legrand’s score works perfectly with the visuals and the story. His main love theme “I Will Wait for You” occurs throughout the film. As the film opens with the ultimate bird’s eye view of French civilians hurrying through a rainstorm with their umbrellas, the love theme slowly emerges in counterpoint, and the orchestrations prominently feature a sustained vibraphone to capture the watery atmosphere. When Guy (the initial guy in the romance) returns from the army, it is again raining, and this time the love theme is played by the winds and marimba tremolos to suggest a deeper, darker rain washing over his past romance.

There are several other recurring motifs as well. Roland’s (the rich guy) desire to help Genevieve (the girl) and her mother is reflected by a simple four note phrase circling around the tonic, suggesting Roland (Marc Michel) is as sincere and considerate as he appears. There is a heavy jazz influence for the dance hall, the garage where Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) works, and the streets of Cherbourg.

The music captures the mood of nearly every scene. When Guy mentions going to see Carmen, castanets begin playing Bizet’s famous rhythm. Each phrase of an argument between Genevieve (Catharine Deneuve) and her mother (Anne Vernon) is sung at a successively higher pitch. Before a proposal, rapid string scales and harp glissandi portray the racing emotions of the characters.

And the synchronization of music and imagery is just about perfect. When a scene or discussion is interrupted, the cue abruptly stops and switches to another. During the love duet, every time the camera makes a temporal jump Guy and Genevieve maintain the same embrace in the first frame; naturally, one cue connects all of these cuts. Two important plot points occur directly after a scene in a church underscored by organ music. Both times the camera slowly pans to the character who is most excited about the development. Among other movie musicals, I think Singin’ in the Rain and Burton’s Sweeney Todd might have better synchronization of music and imagery, and that’s probably it.

 

Content Advisory: An out of wedlock pregnancy and a fleeting bedroom scene with a prostitute (nothing explicit).                          Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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  1. #1 by vjmorton on April 2, 2014 - 5:12 pm

    One reason this film is so great is that at one and the same time it’s both a candy-colored romantic fantasy, a repudiation of candy-colored romantic fantasies, and a wistful love note to candy-colored fantasies. People are happy where they wind up, regardless of their non-fantasy (even in some cases downright mercenary) motives. I literally cannot watch the last scene, even out of context, without tears because of the contrast between the banal chit-chat (“want to se her” / [shakes his head]) of two people who are basically strangers and the soaring romanticism of Michel Legrand’s music, elaborately arranged and amped up to 11, louder and stronger than it had been at any previous point in the movie.

    • #2 by Evan on April 2, 2014 - 5:58 pm

      Absolutely. It’s delightful and charming as a romantic fantasy, but also incredibly thoughtful as a love note and critique of the genre. And that last scene was even more heart-wrenching on my second viewing.

  1. La La Land | Catholic Cinephile

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