The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Review
If you’re ever in any doubt as to cinema’s seductive properties then simply pop in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. A seemingly lightweight, almost throwaway romance which has all of its dialogue sung, this is a film which really shouldn’t work. Indeed, given such a setup you’d imagine it to be the kind of work which could only divide an audience (you’re either with it or you’re not). But then the above description is a more than a little flimsy and most certainly unfair, plus Jacques Demy is a far better director than this allows for.
Certainly its story is melodrama, yet it also has a brisk, novelettish quality further enhanced by its division into chapters (each month is signalled by intertitles) and acts. The crux of the narrative involves Genevieve, a young woman in her late teens who’s in love with Guy, a garage attendant. Heading off for two years military service in Algeria, he leaves her pregnant, a situation which leads to her marrying a wealthy jeweller in his absence. What we have then is a story which, in some respects, offers typical musical plotting – the tug-of-love elements could perhaps find a place in a Doris Day vehicle – yet the presence of an unwanted pregnancy and a more bittersweet undertow also keep it firmly outside of the traditional musical remit; after all, they’re hardly aspects which characterised your average Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire offering.
Yet it’s this constant tension between such unfamiliarities and the more blatant musical stylings which ultimately makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg such an affecting work. The darker elements offer an ironic counterpoint to the warmth of the film, though of course it is the latter which makes it so charming. The mixture of colour (all pastel pinks and blues) and Michel Legrand makes for cinema at its most appealing. Indeed, such is the command which the latter’s score has on an audience that it’s often easy to forget the other elements altogether.
Elements such as Demy’s remarkable visual assuredness. As well as the distinctive colour scheme, his control of the camera is such that it almost dances along with the music; not since Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 delight Love Me Tonight has a film seemed so seamlessly integrated with its songs. And indeed, Legrand’s contribution is near continuous meaning that Demy doesn’t simply dazzle us courtesy of an occasional set piece, but throughout – his camera effectively turning in a performance to rank alongside those of Catherine Deneuve or Anne Vernon.
Of course, the physical presence of such performers cannot be underplayed especially as each brings a lightness to their roles which similarly belie the material’s darker elements. Particularly of note, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Deneuve herself, here at the start of her career. As such this means pre-Repulsion, pre-Tristana, and therefore demonstrating a complete innocence as though still unsullied by these later roles – and of course, such innocence can only be heartbreaking.
Moreover, Demy complements her and her fellow cast members with the poetic simplicity of his dialogue-cum-song lyrics. Had they been spoken rather than sung, then perhaps it would have been all too easy to dismiss them out of hand as overly trite. Yet within the context of this beguiling little film they take on an extra dimension. They simply get straight down to business or, more to point, the root emotions, thereby spelling out Demy’s main intentions. Indeed, if you’re not moved by the sheer beauty of the snow dappled Esso station of the final scene or the shocking, yet oddly comforting conclusion, then surely you’re without hope.
Having received a lacklustre treatment from Tartan in its previous Region 2 UK incarnation, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s two disc re-release is therefore cause for celebration. Taken from a print of the mid-nineties restoration overseen by Agnes Varda, Demy’s widow, we get the film in near perfect condition. Admittedly, the subtitles are still burnt into the print and there are some noticeable instances of edge enhancement, but otherwise there is much to appreciate. The film comes anamorphically enhanced, damage free and with colours which look as beautiful as was intended. Indeed, overall there is little to complain about.
As for the soundtrack, we get the original French albeit in the stereo mix which was created for the aforementioned restoration. This may offend some purists, but having been overseen by Varda it seems churlish to complain too much. Moreover, Legrand’s score sounds absolutely fantastic such is the clarity of the sound. Indeed, for those who won’t have a problem with the upgrade, the sound is little short of superb.
The extras are also entirely noteworthy beginning with the introduction by critic Geoff Andrew on disc one. Twelve minutes in length, this piece manages an impressive level of detail as Andrew discusses just why he loves the film so much – from the film’s artifice to Legrand’s score, everything seemingly gets a mention.
More important, however, are the two films which appear on the second disc (alongside a trailer for A Slightly Pregnant Man, another Demy-Deneuve collaboration gaining a release from Optimum). The first is Varda’s 1995 documentary L’Univers de Jacques Demy, the third of her films to be made about her late husband (following 1991’s Jacquot de Nantes and 1993’s Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans). As she herself describes it, this 87-minute effort is more “a casual stroll with those who knew [Demy]” rather than a strictly formal piece, but then such a situation makes for a hugely inviting work. Indeed, we get input from the majority of his collaborators, excerpts from the majority of his films (particularly appealing is the footage from his earliest, and therefore less seen, ventures), and a wealth of archive material. Just seeing old film of Jim Morrison and Francois Truffaut visiting the set of Donkey Skin is quite remarkable as is the very early (late sixties) footage of Harrison Ford, here being screen tested for an appearance he would never make.
Rounding off the package is Francois Richenbach’s short film from the late fifties, Lunar Amérique. With music from Legrand, not to mention dialogue from Chris Marker, this is something of a curate’s egg. Though the source here is a fuzzy video, it’s still impossible not to get drawn into this strange mood piece as Richenbach’s camera floats across a desolate American landscape. Ostensibly it’s quite similar to Disney’s Grand Canyon short (as found on their Sleeping Beauty two-disc set), though far more beguiling.
As with the main feature, the subtitles on both L’Univers de Jacques Demy and Lunar Amérique are burnt-in.