The Umbrellas of Cherbourg could almost be called The Colours of Cherbourg. The film is bright as a freshly painted button. “A film in song” according to director Jacques Demy, it is also intensely romantic, and rather sad, as well.
The film was Jacques Demy’s third feature film, the predecessors to which had also been romances set in seaside towns. Cherbourg is a ferry port and was blown up by the Germans during World War II, so might not be high on most people’s romance scale, but this is not a problem. Enough quaint little shops survived for the town to look sufficiently pretty, and you can still see many of them now. The effect was enhanced by Demy covering many of the buildings in a riot of pastel-coloured paint.
Part of the Nouvelle Vague that tore up cinema from Paris to Timbuktu, Demy knew his film history inside out. The Umbrellas is a homage to the technicolored Hollywood musicals of the 1950s. Every piece of clothing is also boldly coloured, even the hero’s boring brown suede jacket somehow seems to glow. Not only is the wallpaper psychedelic, but the colours often dance about. A good example is during the opening credits which is a scene of people walking about the dock-side filmed from a bird’s eye point of view: a fisherman wearing a saffron oilskin walks over the yellow road stripe, a sailor with a red pom-pom on his beret strolls with a woman with a red umbrella.
Unlike most Hollywood musicals however, every word is sung, even if it’s just “pass the salt”. This is known as recitative style, that’s most commonly found in operas. The music was written by Michel Legrand, who after the success of this film was dragged off to Hollywood where he won three Oscars for his music. His best known song is probably Windmills of your Mind which was used in the 1968 The Thomas Crown Affair.
This recitative style means the film is musical, but not necessarily packed with songs. It adds to its experimental feel. There are some songs however, most memorably Je ne Pourrai Jamais Vivre Sans Toi translated into English as I Will Wait For You that has been sung by Frank Sinatra and Cher among others. It is a stunningly powerful piece of music at the emotional centre of the film.
The couple who will wait for each other are a gorgeous Catherine Deneuve as the 17-year-old Geneviève and an introspective Nino Castelnuevo as her handsome lover Guy, a 20-year-old car mechanic. They are both very young and as befits their youth, their passion is utterly all enveloping, delirious amour fou. The film is divided into three sections, The Departure, Absence and Return. But these do not follow the path you might expect, this is after all a work of the Nouvelle Vague who were reinventing the old Hollywood conventions.
[Spoiler warning] The first part follows Guy and Geneviève as they swan around Cherbourg drowning in love. This closes with the epic scene where they both sing I Will Wait for You while literally gliding along the street (on a dolly), their love is consummated and they part at the railway station after he is called up to fight in Algeria.
In more conventional films that might have been the end, but here it is just the beginning. In Absence, separated from her lover, Geneviève finds she is pregnant. Her mother tries to marry her off to Roland, a rich Parisian jeweller. After resisting, she gives in and marries the wealthier man. Guy returns from the war in the final section, and marries his aunt’s young carer.
The two lovers separating and hooking up with other people is very different to your average Hollywood musical. We don’t really get to learn much about their new relationships (apart from knowing that Geneviève was slightly pushed into it), and most viewers will probably still be reeling from the heights of passion reached in part one. This is not ‘closure’ as we generally understand it. The effect is melancholy, or at least unsettling.
Still, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a gem of a film, that reinvented the genre much like Moulin Rouge and Dancer in the Dark have done more recently. Deneuve and Castelnuevo are adorable, the score carries the film along in a delicious dreamy torrent of music, and of course, the colours are mesmerising. It’s easy to see why The Guardian put the film as the Number 14 in the Best Romantic Film of All Time’. It is ravishing to the eye and heart.
Last year Jacques Demy’s widow, the great director Agnes Varda appealed on a French crowdfunding site for money to restore the film and it has been done splendidly. There are few films as vivid. Demy filmed it using a system similar to the old Technicolor system, by using three strips of film, yellow, cyan and magenta, which together enhance the picture.
The 50th Anniversary edition of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is out on Monday 10th February on Blu Ray and DVD. It contains over four hours of extras including interviews and documentaries.