Jacques Demy’s poignant tale of doomed romanticism, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), is rereleased on Blu-ray this month through StudioCanal. Bold and incredibly vibrant, Demy’s reinvention of the movie musical arrived just as the genre was on the wane in Hollywood, a testament to its timeless appeal and perennial tale about the fragility of love. Ostensibly a cloyingly twee romantic musical, Demy’s film manages to transcend its saccharine sweet veneer to reveal a genuinely moving tale marooned in a sea of tempered passions, colonial warfare and French class prejudice.
Naïve shop girl Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) sells umbrellas at her mother’s boutique. She’s in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a rugged auto mechanic. Their romance is cut short when Guy is drafted into the Algerian War – with the couple consummating their love on the night of his departure. This night of passion results in Geneviève falling pregnant. Left to cope alone and with Guy’s letters becoming increasingly irregular, her mother insists Geneviève marries Roland (Marc Michel), a handsome and well-to-do Parisian jeweller who has long held a torch for her. Torn between her heart and her brain, Geneviève’s decision is eventually born out of judicious reasoning rather than romantic optimism, leaving the audience to ponder the authenticity or true love.
Demy contorts the artificial veneer of studio filmmaking to give preference to the ebb and flow of raw human emotion. His characters seamlessly fall into song and dance, as if it were a natural means of interaction. It’s all thanks to Michel Legrand’s remarkable score that sees rhymes replace prose as the character’s principle form of communication – effectively providing Demy’s cast with an avenue in which to express their deepest emotions in a sincere and honest manner. Deneuve is often filmed looking directly into the camera, implying that we’re being projected into her thoughts. Demy’s camera is also impervious to Legrand’s lilting melodies, falling under his spell and seemingly enraptured by the majesty of the music.
Combine this free-roaming technique with the use of unseen wheeled platforms to glide characters across the frame and you have a film that feels like we’re witnessing a fairytale unravel. Whereas most musicals succumb to predictable levity and an obnoxiously jubilant disposition, time and space is orchestrated through the music employed in Demy’s ill-fated love story and we find ourselves occupying an artificial world composed of oscillating scales and time signatures. However, behind the candy-coloured sets, warbled dialogue and the camera’s pastoral filter, the posture and poise of the actors is remarkably naturalistic. Both Geneviève and Guy are faced with a very real and fairly common dilemma – to fight for their love against adversity or settle for life’s ballet of despondency.
Despite the film’s incredibly cinematic veneer, Geneviève and Guy take the practical option and burden this fanciful narrative with the quandaries of contemporary life. We’re forced to question whether there is such a thing as true love, or is it merely a construct formed by society. This cynical philosophy ties in nicely with the ubiquitous feelings of national compunction linked to the unpopularity of the Algerian War – a sentiment that feels pertinent to today’s despondent generation. Demy wonderfully captures the ecstasy and infatuation that accompany young love before building to a truly heartbreaking crescendo. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an elegant portrait of young love that swings like a metronome from ecstasy to sorrow.