Deneuve plays Geneviève. Her widowed mother runs a poor umbrella shop, but Geneviève is too happy with her handsome beau, Guy. They cannot wait to marry but Geneviève’s mom sees no future for the young couple. Guy is drafted and he and Geneviève make love, and naturally she is with child while he is off fighting the French war against Algeria. Geneviève is melancholic with Guy’s departure and her loving but selfish mother doesn’t make her ordeal easier by encouraging Geneviève’s relationship with a handsome young jewelry salesman named Roland Cassard. Though the child is not his he wishes still to marry Geneviève. With the passing time and the infrequent letters from her true love, Geneviève decides to marry the rich Roland lest all chances of her happiness vanish.
I must admit my recent viewing of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was my first. I had not seen it before seeing Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs. I was completely unaware of how much Honoré was influenced by Cherbourg, so much so that I can only deduce that the film was a major film for the New Wave in 1964. Jacques Demy, the film’s gifted director, was a breed of New Wave filmmaker unrelated to Cahiers du cinéma, the movie review magazine that is remembered as the birthplace of the popular New Wave directors. Demey, with wife Agnès Varda and the great Alain Resnais, was part of a revolutionary contingency of New Wave filmmakers known as The Left Bank. Their films were more radical than The Right Bank, or Cahiers crowd, and often less successful. Possibly because of Cherbourg’s popular success the film has been separated from the memory of the Nouvelle vague. It’s a trivial concern because the film is so wonderful, but it is still interesting.
Like Love Songs (or I should say Love Songs taking inspiration from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) the film is divided into three acts, each act a unique section in its characters’ lives. The first part, The Departure, shows us how much Guy and Geneviève are in love, and how time is always against those in love, not just in the face of upcoming events but in its concept to quantify the minutes, hours, seconds that go by and are gone forever. Love can never be enough, and in one way Cherbourg is a film for young people. The film screams of youth and beauty and promise, of children becoming adults in the face of difficulty. In another way, the film is for such adults, those who know that the promise of young love is irrational and misleading. Geneviève’s mom knows that if her daughter marries Guy their future will be difficult. Geneviève knows they would live modestly but if they love they will be happy. Young lovers never consider bills. Love doesn’t pay in reality. The film’s second part, The Absence, focuses solely on Geneviève as she deals with her pregnancy, hopeful when receiving Guy’s letters, panicked when not. Roland is a handsome guy, nice too and infatuated with Geneviève. I would go so far as call him a pushover. Geneviève makes some serious decisions in the face of the facts.
One at first thinks of her actions as cold and of betraying her and Guy’s love, but the French have always had such keen insight into human behavior and ritual. At least their films have, and if The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a real 50s Hollywood musical, Geneviève would have defied her mother and ignored Roland, but an unwed young girl expecting with the father countries away has few options for the future.
The final part, Guy’s return, is the saddest section in the film, perhaps because it hits a nerve in modern times. After serving his country, Guy comes home to find his love gone, married to another man raising his own child. There is no place for him in an ever changing Cherbourg, and he wallows in drinking and cheep women, his vital time passing him by. With our country at war for the last 10 years, it is painful to watch a veteran so short-changed in very honest ways. Nino Castelunuovo, the actor who plays Guy, is just terrific. Handsome, Italian, sensitive and charismatic, he really makes the last act of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg work. I expected to be wooed by Catherine Deneuve, but Castelunuovo was a pleasant surprise. That he clings to his invalid aunt’s young nurse in the face of his own loneliness is the ultimate tragedy. Though the film’s final shot suggests true happiness in his new life, I got the sense that Madeleine, the nurse and his new wife, will never be loved the way she loves Guy. She is his consolation prize, pretty as she is, but Guy will always be inevitably comparing her to Geneviève. Their relationship can stand for many. I feel sorry for their son, who when he grows up might learn the truth, that his parents’ love isn’t what society says marriage should be. I understand it’s only a movie but good movies make you forget.
I wasn’t impressed by the music. Though composer Michel Legrand’s music is beautiful, I didn’t care that every line of dialogue is sung. It feels too much like operetta. I wasn’t bothered or turned off by it but I will say that for the first 10 minutes I did consciously notice it. There also isn’t a “great” song to be remembered afterwards like in a traditional musical structure. There is one bittersweet melody that becomes Guy’s and Geneviève’s love tune that is worth humming, but the continuous song, separated mostly by the act breaks, seldom with the changing scene, isn’t what I’m used to with musicals. But don’t let that dissuade you.
All the beautiful comments made throughout the years regarding The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are warranted, but I wish its memory recalled the bittersweet quality this film has. A musical’s ability to capture the trials of life, sad and true, is an event to behold.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The (1964)
(a.k.a. Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les)
Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
Music: Michel Legrand
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo and Anne Vernon
Runtime: 91 minutes
The best DVD edition of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the UK 2-disc set, which features a feature-length documentary by Demy's wife, Agnes Varda. Purchase at Amazon (UK):
Various Amazon links, including multiple DVDs, a VHS, the documentary The World of Jacques Demy, and Legrand's soundtrack: