The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is on my short list of all-time favorite movies, where it stands out as odd against Planet of the Apes, Fargo, Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Fistful of Dollars, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and the other denizens of the always-changing list. And while I have been known to squirt a few when Peter O’Toole emerges from the desert, or when Alec Guinness destroys the bridge, or when General Patton acknowledges the magnificent bastardry of Rommel, or when Taylor realizes he’s on Earth, but none of that turns me into Sylvia Plath on pepper spray (to borrow Dennis Miller’s best line from his short tenure on Monday Night Football) like Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical does.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may also stand out as odd for this column, as it doesn’t fit with other movies I’ve covered, and some may even debate its status as a cult movie. However, I would argue that one definition of a cult movie is any film that inspires a passionate following among its viewers. For example, Danny Peary included The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca in his cult movie books, and neither of these would seem to fit the conventional mold. And since I will fucking shank anyone who criticizes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I think that qualifies as a passionate following.
Okay, “fucking shank” may be a little strong. “Be sadly, sadly disappointed” is more accurate. After all–and I apologize for getting a little personal here–my wife hates this movie.
If you’ve never seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s important to note that the film was, in 1964, a unique experiment in film history: all the dialogue is sung to Michel Legrand’s score. Whenever I hear the tune of “I Will Wait for You,” tears start to flow in a kind of Pavlovian response to the music; when my wife hears it, she sarcastically begins to sing, “When will this crap be over?”
But the film is a risky experiment on the part of Demy and Legrand, and its extraordinarily sentimental plot pushes that risk even further. In late 1957, Genevieve (the stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve in her debut role) is a sixteen-year-old girl who works in her mother’s umbrella shop and loves Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a twenty-year-old mechanic. The young couple shares their modest dreams: Genevieve wants a daughter named Francoise, and Guy hopes to own his own gas station. These plans are interrupted when the real world interferes: Genevieve’s mother has received an 80,000 franc tax bill and may lose the shop, while Guy receives his draft notice to fight in the Algerian war. On the eve of Guy’s deployment, the couple spend one last night together in the flat that Guy shares with his sickly aunt.
As Guy prepares to go, Genevieve vows to wait for him, as the song goes, but this promise proves difficult to keep. Two months later, she discovers that she is pregnant, and meanwhile she is also being courted by a kind jewel dealer, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, reprising a role he played in Demy’s first film, Lola), who buys some jewelry from Genevieve’s mother to help with her financial difficulties. Genevieve has to make a tough choice, as Guy begins to fade from her memory and her circumstances become more pressing.
The wall-to-wall singing combine with a brightly colored set design to create an extraordinary sense of artifice that cannot exist outside of film. Demy also calls attention to this artifice early in the film: when Guy tells his fellow mechanics that he’s taking his girlfriend on a date to see the opera Carmen, the others make meta-commentary on their preferences for movies over opera. However, this positon is also challenged later when Genevieve’s depression spurs her mother to say that “People only die of love in movies.” That rejection of sentiment threatens to undermine a film that at the same time seems to be embracing sentiment at every other turn.
With the singing, the colors, and the meta-commentary, it’s as if Demy wants us to be aware that this film is both artificial and highly fragile. Some critics argue that the film’s off-screen treatment of the Algerian war is dismissive of the reality of that war, but I would argue that it only highlights the fragility of the film’s artifice. The real world is always threatening to break through the film, and much of its power comes from its ability to maintain itself in the face of that pressure. Guy returns home after two years in the war both physically and emotionally damaged, and that damage is only intensified when he finds out about the choice Genevieve had to make while he was gone. However much he longs for the fulfillment of the promise made years earlier, the war has made that fulfillment both impossible and ultimately undesirable.
In the end, Genevieve marries Roland, and Guy ends up with Madeleine, his aunt’s caretaker who has long but silently pined for Guy. Despite the movie’s extensive artifice, it takes an honest approach to love: Genevieve must realize that her promise to Guy was untenable, and Roland offers a mature, happy, but less passionate alternative. For Guy, Madeleine is loyal and devoted, and together they are able to achieve his dream of owning a gas station. Though each settles for their second choices, these are actually better choices, and both manage to fulfill the dreams they had at the beginning of the film.
The film concludes with a scene that is about as perfect an ending as any movie ever had. I don’t want to say much more about it than that. It proves that “sentimentality” is only a perjorative if the work doesn’t earn its emotional responses honestly, as this movie does. Though other filmmakers have tried similar experiments with music (Demy even tried it again, a few years later, with The Young Girls of Rochefort), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains a unique, deeply moving experience.