The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ★★★★★

When I was growing up in the 60’s, if my Dad wasn’t practicing piano, or we weren’t watching TV in the evening, the radio was always on. Now, being the mid-sixties, you would expect this would be a smorgasbord of Beatles, Stones, The Birds, and an assortment of early hippy fodder. Not so on CFRB 1010 AM, the station my parents listened to. CFRB was a conservative ‘adult’ radio station. In 1964 you would be very likely to hear Dean Martin, and very unlikely to hear The Beatles except maybe as part of the newscast reporting on how teenagers were losing their minds en masse.

One of the most likely songs you’d bump into was I’ll wait for you

CFRB listeners, like my mom and dad, seemed to just so love it, and lapped it up day after day. Likewise the rest of the CRFB listening parental ilk, as the song seemed, like some kind of lyrical boomerang, to keep coming back again, and again, and again, and again in the following years.

Needless to say, this song was well ingrained in my tiny musical brain by the time I reached adolescence.

Flash forward a number of decades to tonight’s movie pick. My sweetie was suggesting something from our un-opened Jacques Demy Criterion box set. Wait just a minute. He sounds French. When were the contents of this collection made, I enquired. “Oh, the early 60’s I think” came the reply. Ah Ha! You’re trying to trick me in to watching French New Wave, aren’t you? This Demy guy is pals with Goddard and that crowd, I bet! The rather exasperated, yet controlled reply came … “Well, one of them stars Catherine Deneuve and is a musical” ….. Lets roll!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourge … hmm, never heard of it.

As the film rolled, there it was; that haunting, lilting, strain that I remembered from so long ago. Not only that, they were underlying one of the most simple but visually poetic opening credit sequence I've ever witnessed.

Little did I expect that would only be the beginning of the marvels to come. Wow, what a palette! Anything Wes Anderson has come out with pales in comparison to the intricately textured and lovingly saturated Bernard Evein sets and Jacqueline Moreau costumes. They are positively eye-popping; every frame picture perfect and ready to hang. Director of Photography Jean Rabier’s shadow less lighting and gliding camera lends to the sense of slight surrealism, almost like we’re witnessing a longing and poignant fairy-tale.

A fresh faced and lithesome Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève is wonderfully evocative in her understated longing as she watches the love of her life, Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy, reluctantly leave her behind for his conscription in the Algerian War. His performance is both strong and simultaneously achingly sad.

It’s the marriage of director Jacques Demy script and Michel Legrand’s score that make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the masterpiece it is, though. The delicate dance of note and word waltz us along with our protagonists through the four acts that comprise Geneviève and Guys sad story. While a completely sung film is hardly new, Umbrellas is neither an operetta, tradition sung-through, like Rent, where acapella or stand-alone short musical bridges are often used for narrative in-between numbers, or Chess, where the entire narrative is completely contained within songs that are together; no, Umbrellas is unique. Legrand spins a score that is only comprised of a few melodies that return and repeat and dance, much like Maurice Jarre’s haunting scores work with the David Lean epics; the difference being is that Demy’s dialogue is so intrinsically intertwined with those notes that they can only be seen as one.

Demy deftly and gradually changes the tone through the four acts, and when we arrive at the final moments you realize that he has done something no musical has done before, and that is the final rung up the ladder to the rarified strata of the masterpiece.

How is it that I never heard of this Palm D’Or winning 5 time Academy award nominated well-loved juggernaut? I guess it was because I was wearing short pants at the time and going to see Mary Poppins. I sure loved supercalifragilisticexpialidocious back then, but I’d have to say that Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi has better stood the test of time.

Doing a little reading after the fact, I come across that during the film, Roland, the handsome and rich gentleman competing for fair Geneviève, states that he once loved another woman, Lola. He says it with a palpable look of sadness and regret in his eyes. Demy’s first film, Lola, is about their story. I then read a later Demy film, Model Shop, is about what became of Lola, aka, Cecile. Holy shit. Have I just found the original Wong Kar-wai? I now desperately want to see those other two, and desperately want WKW to make a musical!