After seeing La La Land, I had that musical itch, and of course any critic worth their salt writing about the film cites Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a major influence. Due to major blind spots on my part, I hadn’t even heard of the film before. But thanks to my new FilmStruck account, I was able to cross the film off my list of shame.
And I’m very glad I did, though watching it so soon after La La Land may have slightly dampened my view of the newer film. That’s because The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an absolutely charming, engaging film, and the love story at its center is even more affecting. It’s no surprise that Damien Chazelle and critics are so entranced by Demy’s film that they need to bring it into discussing the film now tied for the most Oscar nominations ever. It’s actually a compliment to Chazelle, for his film to be evocative of this French musical classic.
Watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a much different experience than watching La La Land overall. For one, it is a all-sung musical, similar to an opera, where every line in the film is sung along to music. There is no showstopping song so much as the music rising and falling along with the emotional swells of the story. In fact, it is difficult to even call out specific songs because of how seamlessly the film transitions, even across scene cuts. Some of the best singing in the movie is about auto-repairs, which feels like Demy winking at the absurdity of the conceit. It is meant to be fun, not realistic.
Spoilers for both La La Land and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg below
The bulk of the film is the romantic life of Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), a 17-year old living with her mother and working in their tiny umbrella shop (it seems that Normandy is one of the few places an umbrella shop would be remotely sustainable as a business) in the late 1950s. She meets and falls in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a local mechanic. Guy lives with his sickly godmother (Mireille Perrey), who is cared for by Madeleine (Ellen Farner). Guy is drafted into the Algerian War, and so the couple pledge their undying love and have a tearful goodbye at the train station.
Soon, Geneviève discovers she is pregnant, is unhappy with the infrequent nature of Guy’s letters, and is urged by her mother to look at another man. Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) is a Parisian jeweler, making him the far more practical choice. In the end, everything works out for Geneviève and Guy, except they don’t end up together. We find this out in a heartbreaking ending, which jumps forward in time to the two lovers being reunited on Christmas Eve when Geneviève stops for gas as Guy’s Esso station.
Similar to the characters in La La Land, both characters realize their dream (an Esso station/jazz club, a stable life/an acting career), but there is a definite sadness underlying this achievement. We don’t know for sure exactly how each feels about the other, but the idea of a missed opportunity, a missed alternate life, dominates the epilogues of both films.
End of Spoilers
And while La La Land uses color in a way that is much more vibrant than most Hollywood films today, it is no match for the unapologetically bright color Demy employs in Cherbourg. The clothes, the sets (that wallpaper!), nearly everything in this rainy hamlet is brightly colored, highlighting the unreality of the film’s world. It’s a lot to take in at first, but by the end of the first part of the film, I was absolutely in love with its look.
It would be easy to dismiss Cherbourg as overly twee or melodramatic, but the film is an absolute pleasure to watch. Despite it dealing with heavy subjects, the music and performances together shine brightly, and I found myself completely enchanted by it.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.