Jacques Demy’s 1964 movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is now revived in cinemas as part of the Musicals seasons at London’s BFI Southbank, and it has to be one of the most famous non-Hollywood musicals of all time: entirely sung through, like a light opera of the semi-swinging French 60s.
Catherine Deneuve plays Geneviève, a beautiful 17-year-old (bafflingly, Demy’s lyrics describe her as not beautiful) demurely working for her mother (Anne Vernon) in a quaint umbrella shop in Cherbourg. She is dating handsome young auto mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and they are very happy, but she is devastated when Guy is called up for military service in Algeria, and even more upset when he stops writing to her. Meanwhile, her mother has serious money worries and is steering poor, bewildered Geneviève into smiling on the wealthy young man, Roland (Marc Michel), who wants to marry her.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ripples across the screen in a rainbow of pretty pastel colours and a breathy susurration of high notes (the kind of thing affectionately pastiched by The Flight of the Conchords in their classic Foux-Da-Fa-Fa spoof), and I have to admit I have been a bit agnostic about it, retaining a little scepticism even now, despite warming up to the unworldly charm and almost childlike sincerity and poignancy that Demy conjures up. And the movie has its impressive coherence of design, although there is something approaching sketch comedy in the early sequence in which Geneviève and Guy are floating along the pavement, their feet not touching the ground.
Yet Michel Legrand’s score is for me sometimes thin, shrill and repetitive, straining in a high register and it can sound weirdly the same, no matter what the film’s ostensible mood. Guy’s description of three soldiers being killed and of being attacked with hand grenades is sung with that same sugary, insouciant melodic jauntiness.
But Deneuve brings to the film her own subtly erotic discontent and muted sadness. There is a great moment when Roland says to Geneviève that she reminds him of a painting: “A Virgin and Child I saw in Antwerp.” Of course, that ill-chosen, and unromantic remark is supposed to show how cold, how bloodless and unpassionate Roland is compared to Guy – the sexy blue-collar guy who works with his hands, as opposed to this wealthy, well-travelled art connoisseur.
The irony is that he is right: the sad, hollow-eyed, pale Deneuve really does look like a sacrificial figure in a religious painting. She has an intensity that is always on the verge of being wrong for this movie. Yet, without it, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg would be simply sucrose. And Vernon is good as her mother, Madame Emery, candidly excited by the handsome and wealthy Roland, and perhaps attracted to him herself. And why not? Vernon was only 39 when the film was made and Michel 35. (The script rather callously talks about her dying only a few years later, as if she is very old.)
This is a very controlled movie, not availing itself much the freedoms made available by the New Wave, although there is one real coup: pregnant Geneviève is trying on bridal veils in a store, and there is a startling hard cut to her in the marriage ceremony itself, as if it has all happened in a dream.
• The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is rereleased in the UK on 6 December.
Source: The Guardian