Before Connie Francis sang I Will Wait for You in 1966, the song’s bittersweet melody was instantly familiar to French audiences as the core theme of Jacques Demy’s film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, released two years earlier. Filmed in vivid Technicolour on Eastman stock, it’s a musical that lives on the screen - almost permanently so, having nearly been lost forever from decades of repeat viewings and fading celluloid. It’s only fairly recently that a full restoration has been able to replicate Demy’s original vision, bringing back how the film was meant to be seen upon release in 1964.
Umbrellas fits cosily between two other Demy films - Lola (1961) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - as the middle part of an informal romantic trilogy, carrying over the French filmmaker’s trademark penchant for big, bold musical set-pieces and their potential for heart-breaking pathos. The film, set of course on the coastal port of Cherbourg, features Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as star-crossed lovers Geneviève and Guy, whose affair is brought to an abrupt end as Guy is drafted into the developing Algerian war. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth, and perhaps that is the film’s point. While Guy is away, Geneviève finds herself pregnant with his child and, dispirited with his lack of correspondence, reluctantly decides to marry another man instead. The two meet once more in the film’s coda, sharing a brief, stilted conversation inside the petrol station Guy now manages, with a wife and child to occupy his days.
This story is told not through dialogue, but entirely through song - a risky proposition even today. Noticeably, even the most mundane of lines (one scene asks Geneviève to specify what kind of gasoline she requires for her car) are elevated - and sometimes made tragic - by Michel Legrand’s sweeping, iconic score. Heavily inspired by and hell-bent on perfecting them, Umbrellas was made very much in the tradition of classic MGM musicals.
However, Demy was not simply content with emulating Singin’ in the Rain - this is a story far more poignant and melancholic than an uproarious Gene Kelly number. Demy actively undermines the happy ending, and the melodramatic Hollywood reunion never quite manifests, resigning Guy and Geneviève to a shared nostalgic moment found somewhere in the past, now faded. The raw intensity of the scene is demonstrative of the film’s accumulative power - to speak without strict words, and allows Deneuve and Castelnuovo to convey history in just a glance or a pensive drag on a cigarette. The scene is at once a transaction and a long-held release of breath, each line euphemistic and awfully final. As characters they feel older, with no prosthetics or make-up necessary.
Jean Rabier’s cinematography endures like Legrand’s music and lyrics. Its pure cinematic confectionary; eye-watering and instantly memorable, staging the cobbled streets of Cherbourg like a child’s fantasy playset of corner shops, industrial garages and quirky boutiques. As Guy’s train departs the station, Rabier’s genius camerawork tracks backwards from the platform, following its path and diminishing Geneviève’s size, until even the train itself must depart the frame and separate the two lovers for what feels like an eternity. It brings immense pleasure to know Rabier’s work on this film would, surely, have been just as powerful and meaningful the day before his death on 15 February last year as it was the day it was first seen.
Now perhaps more than since its original run over fifty years ago, Umbrellas can find itself in the hearts of new audiences fresh from Damien Chazelle’s La La Land - a similarly classical Hollywood toe-tapper banking on the charisma of its leading couple and basking in the glow of old Hollywood wonder. In fact, the Whiplash director explicitly singles out Umbrellas as a huge influence on his new award-winner. “I didn’t like it at first,” he concedes in a recent interview. “They sang every line of dialogue, and I felt so uncomfortable. But as it went on, I forgot they were singing, and at the end, I was weeping. I was transported, demolished, blown away, elevated. Everything you can be from a movie.” More significantly, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - he says - “was the moment where I realised that art can change your life.”
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