50 films: #6. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg / The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

It’s by the luck of the draw that I find myself writing about this film barely a week after an excellent piece about it appeared in the blogosphere. There may not be a great deal of interest I can add to that, but I will preface what follows with a warning that it contains plot spoilers. I don’t believe the watching of this film is harmed by advance knowledge of what happens in it, since the arc of the story relies on banal romantic conventions and clichés to such a degree that it is quite possible for the perceptive first-time viewer to divine its outcome on the basis of having watched only the first ten or fifteen minutes. One of the things that interests me about Les Parapluies is how a film with such an ostensibly hackneyed plot should be so successful in shunning banality.

I was in my mid-teens when I first became aware of Les Parapluies. I’d been devouring French films at a steady pace for a few years, but a French-language musical was a novelty to me – furthermore, a musical containing no spoken dialogue at all, in which even the most mundane lines are sung. It sounded bewilderingly exotic.

In spite of the sumptuousness of all that follows, I love the opening title sequence most of all. The sound of a foghorn ushers in the aerial view of a cobbled Cherbourg street, a picture-postcard impression of a seaside town, as that familiar, bittersweet tune begins in Legrand’s tender, minimal scoring. The rain falls vertically, the meticulously choreographed pastel umbrellas and bicycles move across the screen, and the heart is automatically enraptured by the impeccable care and attention paid to the film’s colour and surface and style. Well, my heart anyway.

The action begins in the garage where 20-year-old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) works. His workmates are the campest mechanics imaginable. One sings of his plans to go dancing, while Guy is excited about seeing Carmen. He is mocked mercilessly: ‘L’amour est enfant de Bohème, la la la la-la-la-la la la!’ His colleague cannot abide the artifice of people singing everything. ‘Tous ces gens qui chantent, moi tu comprends ça me fait mal!’ he sings.

Guy, it transpires, is straight. After clocking off he meets his beloved, 17-year-old Geneviève, whose mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), owns the eponymous umbrella shop. He must have met this girl quite a few times already, as he evinces no shock at her being Catherine Deneuve. Despite Madame Emery’s well-intentioned naggings, Geneviève persists in stepping out with this older man.

A digression now about Michel Legrand’s magnificent score. It is through-composed in the way that a Wagnerian opera is. (I think a direct comparison of Legrand and Wagner might see the former come off pretty badly, though as the writer of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ he probably wins in the hummability stakes.) There are only a couple of free-standing songs capable of being extracted from and sung independently of the musical: the one everyone knows (‘Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi’, rendered into English as ‘I Will Wait for You’ and sung by a thousand Lesley Garretts and Susan Boyles the world over), and Roland Cassard’s sweet little aria that later became ‘Watch What Happens’. Melodically, Legrand relies on the Leitmotiv, with the jaunty ‘C’est toi, Guy?’ / ‘Bonsoir, Tante Elise’ as Guy returns home to the elderly aunt he lives with (Mireille Perrey); and then the sensuous ‘Bonsoir, Guy’ / ‘Bonsoir, Madeleine’, which recurs whenever Guy meets his aunt’s young carer (Ellen Farner). Much later in the film, Guy will sing to Madeleine, to the same tune, of his dream: ‘Être heureux, avec une femme, dans une vie que nous aurions choisi ensemble.’ Harmonically, Legrand relies heavily on the circle of fifths. Few composers have exploited the potential of the circle of fifths so effectively, and none so often.

Guy and Geneviève talk (sing) of the future, which is rarely a good idea at such an early stage of a film. Incurable romantic that Guy is, he dreams that they will one day own a petrol station. Geneviève is more interested in children, and informs him that they will have a girl called Françoise. But what if it’s a boy? asks Guy, reasonably. Geneviève explains, ‘Il y a toujours une fille dans la famille.’ These are the prophecies that will be both fulfilled and shattered by the end of the film.

Before long, Guy receives his call-up papers and bids Geneviève a tearful farewell to go and serve in Algeria. Soon after his departure, she finds she is pregnant. For the sake of respectability, and at her mother’s behest, she marries a jeweller, the kindly Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), and stops writing to Guy. He returns from the war to find everything changed, and marries Madeleine. An epilogue shows Guy and Geneviève meeting again, a few years down the line.

It reads like the plot of a second-rate romantic novel, and the twists in the tale revealed at the end – that Guy does now own an Esso filling station, that Geneviève has called her and Guy’s daughter Françoise, and moreover that Guy has called his and Madeleine’s son François – may seem like the customary clichés of popular fiction. And yet they are gutting in their way, like the twist of the knife at the end of Manon des Sources. Surely it is a combination of the film’s visual style and its intoxicating music that produces this effect.

Roger Ebert, from whom I am seldom minded to dissent, writes that the film’s style, i.e. constant singing and thereby, presumably, whimsicality, ‘would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but “Umbrellas” is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all … The very last scene, of a final meeting between Guy and Genevieve, is one of such poignancy that it’s amazing the fabric of a musical can support it.’ Of course, opera supports this kind of thing all the time, and some of the bolder musicals (West Side Story) have a stab at it (no pun intended), but Les Parapluies is a rare creation in this regard. You don’t expect a musical to have such a profound effect on you. I remember watching it with my mother and brother a few years ago, and at the end sitting in silence for maybe twenty seconds, all of us too choked up to talk. I don’t think my memory has played me false in this recollection.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. A new print, restored under the supervision of Jacques Demy’s widow, the director Agnès Varda, was released in 1996. It is currently available for viewing online here.

IMDb | Buy from Amazon.co.uk

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