Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The (France, 1964)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

By the 1990s, the movie musical has become a dead art form. Four recent revival attempts have not been met enthusiastically. The first two, Newsies and Sarafina, went to video after approximately one-week theatrical runs (even the Disney name couldn't save the former). The third, I'll Do Anything, was transformed into a songless dramatic comedy following disastrous test screenings. And, while Madonna's Evita wasn't a box-office flop, its lukewarm reception didn't result in the resurrection of the musical. So, for those of us who appreciate the genre, the best place to look is the past.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was initially released in 1964, and, amongst other things, helped catapult Catherine Deneuve to stardom. In filming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, director Jacques Demy opted to sacrifice print longevity for vibrant color. The stock he used yielded brilliant hues, but degraded quickly. By the mid-seventies, the only remaining copies of the film were in terrible condition. But Demy, anticipating this problem from the outset, had archived multiple monochromatic negatives that, when properly combined with each other, allowed re-creation of the original color. With Demy's widow, Agnes Varda, supervising the re-mastering, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was recently brought back to life, and is now available in its previous splendor.

As a musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is unusual in several ways. First, unlike most big American productions of the time, there are no show-stopping production numbers. There's no dancing, no chorus, and no duets. Secondly, there are no spoken lines of dialogue -- everything, from the mundane to the important, is sung. Finally, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn't a lightweight bon-bon with a happily-ever-after ending. While the film has its share of effervescent moments, there's also an element of undeniable poignancy.

The two main characters, 17-year old Genevieve (Deneuve) and 20-year old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), are star-crossed lovers. Despite the stringent objections of Genevieve's mother (Anne Vernon), who thinks a gas station mechanic is beneath her daughter, the two continue their clandestine meetings, and eventually consummate their relationship. Soon after, Guy has to serve a stint away from France in the army. Following his departure, Genevieve learns that she is pregnant, and must decided whether to wait for Guy's uncertain return or marry the rich, cultured Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who offers stability, undying love, and the promise of raising her child as his own. Genevieve's choice irrevocably alters the lives of at least four people.

Watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it's not hard to understand why Deneuve became such an icon. Not only is she beautiful, but she possesses that elusive characteristic known simply as "star quality". She's the perfect lead for this film, which demands an actress possessing legitimate range. Demy has used the musical to explore several universal themes, particularly the meaning and nature of different kinds of love. Although most movies favor passion and true love, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows that another less demanding, more subtle kind of love has its own appeal.

Agnes Varda's reconstruction has done the film justice. The colors, which include bright pinks, reds, purples, and oranges, look great, and the cleaned-up soundtrack is better than ever. Although, as I said before, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg lacks song-and-dance numbers, there is one tune that recurs throughout. This song, beautifully composed by Michel Legrand, radiates longing and loss, and forms the movie's core. It, like the film, is far more powerful than one would initially suppose.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The (France, 1964)

Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Music: Michel Legrand
U.S. Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Ranked #103 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1