The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ★★★★★

Aunt Élise: Maybe happiness makes me sad.

It is said that there is an inimitable rhythm of life. A beat to our every utterance, a strained note in our every motion, a symphony in our souls. Cinema, at its purest and most powerful, strikes that undulating chord of vitality and allows it to resonate with our very core, to place before our eyes what we yearn for and hope for and fear for and fret for most deeply in our hearts. When a single note is struck the hairs stand on end and the mind flies from our body, entwining in the elsewhere world between the cinematic frame and the present body. However, in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, not a single note is struck. No, every single note is struck. Both literally and figuratively, Demy’s musical odyssey of longing and loving and compromising and dreaming runs the gamut of exquisite sorrows and ecstasies whilst evincing them through a superlative, soaring, swelling Michel Legrand score. Every line is sung, every shot is scored, and over the course of a mere ninety minutes one is given a sense of having watched a life born and lived through the cinematic frame.

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are mesmeric as young lovers Geneviève and Guy, whose youthful fling is pierced by the pull of military duty and the reality of life lived apart for a moment too long. They are brought together as if by fate and broken apart by real life, their romance crystallised in empty spaces and aching refrains of a half-remembered yet never forgotten song. Segmented into three parts, the film is poised wondrously by Demy at focal points in our leading lovers’ lives, with six years slipping by in the blink of an eye as young lovers become adults in a world obsessed with growing up and getting on. We move through the seasons of the natural world in pure symmetry with the changing climes of our lovers’ hearts, and each passing moment is captured indelibly by cinematographer Jean Rabier. 

The camera is as evocative of that elusive rhythm of life as the score and the screenplay, moving through scenes, away from them, and around them like the orgastic green light that Gatsby is guided by and driven to; long shots linger unbroken, empty spaces are held in stasis to recall moments passed, whilst close-ups convey inner anguish and the space that grows between Guy and Geneviéve opens outwards like an unbreachable horizon, longed to be met but condemned to be just out of reach.

Bernard Evien and Jacqueline Moreau work wonders with their respective production design and costuming, rich reds, tranquil blues, and vital greens bring out in the way only film can the hues of our human experience, putting the likes of Wes Anderson and the mighty colourists Pixar to shame. The result of their labours is a staggeringly beauteous looking film, nuanced on every level and symbolic without being patronisingly so, a rich embrace of the heightened reality of the musical genre which permits expression without repression or inhibition.

The influence this film has held over the genre and over cinema is evident in its every innovative movement and lyrical phrase, narrative nosedive and thematic movement. Damian Chazelle cites Cherbourg as instrumental not only in the style of musical he set out to make with La La Land musically and aesthetically, but in empowering him to show viewers the reality of love - that happy endings can hurt and be happy at the same time, that something lost doesn’t have to mean nothing gained, and that a fleeting moment of infinity shared between two people whose paths cross in the sprawling labyrinth of life cannot and should not be taken for granted. Love is for dreamers, and it is with Demy as it is with Chazelle to raise a glass to the ones who dream, foolish as they may indeed seem.

It was La La Land that ultimately led me to discover Cherbourg, and now that I have arrived there, I believe a piece of my heart will always remain lay on its beautifully cobbled streets. There is a rhythm of life, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg gives us one of its most breathtaking songs.