The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
Masterpieces don’t happen all the time. Sometimes they happen, and people don’t realize they are looking at one. Other times, they know right away when they see it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a true masterpiece of filmmaking. The script alone is a perfect plot, no fat; everything moves the characters forward, whether getting closer to their goals or having it complicated. There’s not a single second of wasted time on the screen, which says a lot for a film that is also spilling over with style. Oh yes, and every word in the movie is sung, starting with an exchange between a mechanic and a customer talking about the status of a car. Damien Chazelle boldly claimed this is “the best film ever made.” But is it?
Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is a seventeen-year-old girl living & working in the coastal city of Cherbourg. She’s employed by her mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), at the family umbrella store. Genevieve is madly in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who shares her sentiments. He’s in his early 20s, caring for his sick aunt and working as an auto mechanic. Guy dreams of opening his own petrol station one day, marrying Genevieve, and settling down. Life certainly seems to be headed that way. Unfortunately, Guy is drafted to serve in the Algerian War, which means he’ll be away for two years. They depart in tears, and Genevieve learns that she’s pregnant soon after. Madame Emery encourages her daughter to be sensible with her future and offers up Roland (Marc Michel), a young wealthy Parisian jeweler. Oh, he’s also the same character and actor that were the protagonist in Demy’s Lola. Unlike most Hollywood love stories/musicals, this one isn’t going to end on the cheery note you might expect.
The musical as a type of cinema has been unfairly maligned as “lesser” art than a standard drama or even a cinematic comedy. I think this is incredibly unfair and speaks to latent misogyny among many film critics. The best critics love movie musicals, but a particular crowd looks down on them. Demy’s work is a solid counter-argument to this sentiment, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is chief among them. The emotional weight of this film is not softened by the singing; it’s enhanced. The plot here isn’t anything out of the ordinary; it’s a story of young love not going the way the lovers intended. It’s a story that plays out in our world every single day. Demy elevates that simple story through song and music into something epic and operatic. This might be the story of a couple that didn’t work out, but it feels as if it’s the most important story in the world.
At its release, Umbrellas was not seen as anything special. The French critics who adored the New Wave began a long tradition of rolling their eyes at Demy, dismissing his work. Even in the States, the movie was received as overly sentimental and lacking substance. If you can look past the bold, as Patton Oswalt called it, “lickable” scenery, this is a painfully human story. We have two young people wholly devoted to each other, something I’m sure we can all relate to. But we also understand the mother’s perspective, seeing this as a relationship that cannot be sustained. The Algerian War intrusion reminded French filmgoers of a conflict that was painfully fresh in their history and of French colonization.
There are also prominent issues of class all throughout the picture. Guy is working class, and we see this when he works as a mechanic in an oil-stained jumpsuit. Roland is a jeweler from Paris who wears nice suits and drives an expensive car. Guy rides a bike around the city. Genevieve accompanies him on that bike, but in her final scene in the picture, she’s driving an expensive car. Guy also steps up in society, becoming a gas station owner and no longer wearing that oil-stained jumpsuit. Despite moving up the economic ladder, there’s still a sense of loss. They end up adults living very different lives than they initially imagined. Their perceptions of love and eternal devotion are also transformed. As Guy prepares to leave on the train for the war, they sing about how they will love each other forever. That simply doesn’t happen. Neither of them is the bad guy; life didn’t follow the path they imagined in their youth.
Because people sing from start to finish, there are no overly elaborate musical numbers or set pieces. The production design is very loud and filled with psychedelic colors, but the people and their lives are incredibly typical and sedate. A sense of sophistication comes from letting the story play out realistically, without a need to deliver an ending that would ensure the audience stays happy. What’s going on is that Demy has allowed his characters to speak their passions out loud while still following a realistic narrative. This is a bit strange for people used to the tropes of Broadway and the movie musical. Beyond the singing, the film isn’t very heightened.
Despite the film conventions at work, Demy stays true to the emotions of being alive and in love. Umbrellas of Cherbourg is undoubtedly one of the best musicals ever made and one of the best films. I don’t know if I could get behind Chazelle’s bold declaration, but that’s because there is no “best movie ever made.” It’s whatever speaks truest to you. If you have been young & in love and felt the profound ache of heartbreak, this is a film that will speak to you. There are few movies like this, and so it deserves your attention.