‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ a Quirky Curiosity
Characters singing about not being able to stay late for work is a little silly
By Todd Hill
So you don’t like musicals. So fine. But just because you can’t wrap your head around the (admittedly bizarre) conceit of people suddenly bursting into song to advance a plot is no reason to spoil the party for everyone else.
That was the attitude I chose to adopt as I optimistically sat down to watch “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the 1964 musical by the French filmmaker Jacques Demy. I’m a longtime, if lukewarm, fan of the musical genre, at least as it’s been interpreted by Hollywood. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” however, is decidedly not that.
The movie has more in common with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” than, say, “Hello, Dolly!” Every single line of dialogue in the film is sung, most of it in recitative, essentially rendering the picture an operetta. Although some of the musical themes are lovely — its main theme, “I Will Wait For You,” was recorded by scores of artists in the 1960’s — the spectacle of characters singing about not being able to stay late for work has the potential to render “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” a little silly.
I have to admit that I perhaps let expectations color my perceptions of the film going in, never a good thing, and always disruptive. But I had read the articles about filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who nearly saw his film “La La Land” win the Best Picture Oscar in 2017 (remember the envelope mix-up with “Moonlight”?), gushing about how “Cherbourg” inspired him as he made his movie. I’m not claiming any sort of grand affection for “La La Land,” but I figured if what I did admire about Chazelle’s film had anything to do with the Demy picture then I owed it to myself to check out the latter.
Well, I was disappointed. Distracted, but disappointed. I felt like the distraction was completely intentional.
Maybe the wall-to-wall music was a fully well-intentioned choice by Demy and not just window-dressing. It’s even possible that the film’s blindingly colorful palette — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so much fuchsia of such intensity before — was just an artistic consideration. Remove these two elements from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” however, and there’s not a lot of there there.
What we do have is the simplest of romances. Genevieve, whose mother runs a floundering umbrella shop on the northwest coast of Normandy, is deeply in love with Guy, a dashing auto repairman at the local Esso shop. Guy is called away to serve in the military, setting up a clichéd if passionate farewell scene at a rail station. He doesn’t write regularly, she marries another in his absence. Once back from Algeria, Guy eventually does the same thing.
Maybe neither Genevieve nor Guy will be as happy with other people as they could have been with each other, who’s to say. Certainly Demy’s film doesn’t make much of an effort to weigh in on the matter. You’ll find no shortage of film critics gushing over what “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” has to say about happiness, acceptance and so on, but honestly, I think this almost wholly depends on what each viewer personally brings to the experience of watching the movie. You’re going to have to bring something. I evidently didn’t bring enough.
I’ve never been one to endlessly nitpick at a motion picture’s errors or perceived shortfalls. I honestly don’t care whether the sun angle is wrong for a certain time of day in a given place during a particular time of year, or about other slip-ups of that magnitude. But this motion picture has several weak plot points that I couldn’t ignore.
With Genevieve pregnant while Guy’s abroad, she receives a marriage proposal from a worldly, wealthy jeweler with whom she’s barely conversed, and who has no qualms about fathering someone else’s kid. Once back in France and informed that the love of his life is engaged to this guy, Guy does nothing to win her back. Instead, he proposes to his aunt’s caretaker, a young woman he’s never really even noticed before. Appropriately skeptical, she nonetheless accepts. With each misstep, I could feel this film slipping away.
At least it has Catherine Deneuve, but this only goes so far. The French actress, who was just 20 when she starred in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” looks positively angelic in this picture. Deneuve’s long and storied career in cinema speaks for itself, but when she appeared in this bauble her best work was still ahead of her. Her Genevieve is a bit of a blank.
Admittedly, “Cherbourg” came along when the film musical needed some form of resuscitation. Hollywood had by no means slowed its production of titles within the genre in 1964, but it had run out of fresh ideas and the genre’s conventions, which worked so well on, say, “Oklahoma!” (1955), were starting to show their age in stodgy, if beloved, titles like “My Fair Lady” (1964) and “The Sound of Music” (1965). These were warning signs that no amount of Academy Awards could hide.
Ultimately, however, the success of a seemingly groundbreaking film like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” should be judged in large part on how much ground it’s actually broken. And to this day, Demy’s picture stands out largely as an incongruous curiosity.
Cinephiles with good memories and a willingness to stretch the truth could point to a similar film, 1981’s “Pennies From Heaven,” as a direct descendant of “Cherbourg.” The movie took a Dennis Potter BBC series and relocated it to Depression-era Illinois, using popular, uplifting songs of the era to tell a story that, frankly, couldn’t be more morose if it tried. “It makes you cry it’s so distasteful,” Fred Astaire famously said of the film upon its release.
“Pennies From Heaven,” unwisely starring Steve Martin in a deeply serious role during the peak of his comedy career, deserves to be seen once — and just once — for the bizarre oddity that it is. I would say much the same, but little more, for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.