Those who want a musical like any other musical will not find it in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Those who find the idea of having every line in the film entirely sung grating, Jacques Demy knew it would turn you off too. With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy already knew what audiences are set to expect when they hear the label of “musical” being used to describe a film but he turns around desires into a greater melancholy. In the nature of the French New Wave, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg goes ahead to carry more of their experimental traits and now we have one that takes the approach to the Hollywood musical. Then it becomes clear why The Umbrellas of Cherbourg works as wonderfully: it isn’t a musical anymore.
Guy and Geneviève are lovers. The 17-year-old Geneviève sells umbrellas for a living together with her mother, Madame Emery, and Guy is a handsome young mechanic. The pair plan to get married. Guy is drafted and now must fight in the Algerian war, but the pair pledge that their love will go undying. The first thing one would notice about this story is that it’s a fairly ordinary tragedy, but Jacques Demy’s handling of melodrama, at least through expression of emotion, is superb – for it always feels present within backgrounds and the film’s own selling point. It’s a musical that merely doesn’t feel like one, rather instead because of the fact every last line of dialogue is sung, gives it the feeling of watching an opera on the stage. But the way Jacques Demy chooses to tell this story ultimately makes it the only way, and the results are absolutely beautiful.
Having the film’s most simple dialogue all sung makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg not so much a musical but perhaps a more disoriented take on the typical classic Hollywood musical, given as many of the most famous examples would give a tone of happiness through their numbers (look at Singin’ in the Rain for instance). But for people who think they know what they’re in for because of the fact it’s all sung, Jacques Demy had something else in mind as I can only imagine he deliberately would have wanted people turned off from this aspect alone. We have musicals like Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story which allow their numbers to set a certain tone for its own tragedy, but a different experiment comes into play under Jacques Demy’s eyes because unlike those numbers in West Side Story, there is nothing to remind the viewers of happiness within its own world.
This consistent feeling of sadness could only have gone down another pathway, but the expressions felt from Catherine Deneuve or Nino Castelnuovo’s singing as they reassure their love for one another, but it feels like the perfect mirror for their thoughts to flow, adding more to the authenticity of the emotions running all throughout. Yet there was another layer of psyche present because of the fact that everything was all sung, because it adds more to the dreamlike feeling that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg presents almost like it knows everything will be going okay. When watching Catherine within the film’s entire second act, that’s where the singing only becomes even more helpful to the film’s narrative. In Guy’s absence, she still wishes to retain her own love because of her pregnancy in spite of his absence. From here onward, it only falls into an area of greater melancholy as the lovers within their distance turn into shadows of their past selves before it comes to haunt them – resulting into a climax so unexpected for the musical, for it retains what forms the great impact it leaves behind.
In a sense that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a film about trying to keep a promise to that point everything has become almost like a dream, Jacques Demy turns what would be expected around on itself by showing a tragic reality on the inside. From the colourful backgrounds or the all-sung dialogue it plays as a perfect representation of the optimism that one wishes to keep from a dream, but through this narrative choice it only finds a greater sense of expression within itself for it captures all these different emotions as they come into one, forming an overwhelming experience within itself. From a technical viewpoint it is already impressive just to think about how it all adds up to what would be a rich experience in reflecting the delicacy of the human condition as it moves on, because Demy’s direction marries itself together with Michel Legrand’s score in order to bring aboard the best sort of subversion, reveling inside favoured tendencies that make a genre so distinctive and suddenly bringing out a conclusion that doesn’t go within a sentimental path, rather an ending that only feels genuine in the best sense.
It would be unfair to categorize The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as an ordinary musical because it doesn’t abide by what would normally be expected of the genre. The all-singing narrative together with the colourful backgrounds could have been overly cutesy or quirky for its own sake. The best part about watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it is far from that, but rather instead an adult insight on the psychology running behind relationships as dreams of happiness only fill the mind. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels so much like a dream just as it is indeed a film about them, only to have found a waking point that comes out of nowhere. For people who already knew that the all-singing aspect could have turned them off in an instant, maybe that’s a part of what makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg work beautifully, because this singing only feels like a reflection of truth. And maybe a clear fact of the matter is, it hurts far too much to comprehend. So ultimately, it is these dreams that we resort to.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Jacques Demy
Screenplay by Jacques Demy
Produced by Mag Bodard
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Release Year: 1964
Running Time: 91 minutes