' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

When I visited Paris for the first time with My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife, we stopped one afternoon in a pastry shop exclusively selling macarons. It was a rainy day, and though it wasn’t quite like stepping from black & white Kansas into Technicolor Oz, because rainy day Paris is probably the second most beautiful city in the world after sunny day Paris, it was still going from grey skies to an abundance of brightly colored cookies all lined up like glittering jewels. I thought about that when I recently watched Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” for the first time, the camera during the opening credits looking down on a multihued panoply of parapluies (and gawd, isn’t parapluie a better world for umbrella than umbrella?) opened against the Cherbourg sky, as if each one was a macaron, impervious to the raindrops. It foreshadows a movie of famously vibrant colors, from clothes to wallpaper to architecture. If there is magic in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, though, it is not simply from how Jean Rabier’s cinematography sizzles the retina, but how gradually those colors become more muted, evincing these umbrellas not as something to up and magically carry you away, a la Mary Poppins, but to do what they are supposed to do – shield you against the sad shit falling from the sky.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a musical, though it’s not a narrative film that stops its narrative for songs; its narrative is told entirely through song, beginning to end, as akin to an opera as a musical. “Sometimes, when I am very happy, I sing to myself. Sometimes, when they are very happy, so do the characters in ‘Everyone Says I Love You,’” wrote Roger Ebert long ago, about the musical by Woody Allen, which maybe raises the possibility of this review being erased in the middle of itself though that’s a chance, dammit, we’ll just have to take. Ebert continued: “Who wants to go through life not ever singing?” I think of these lines often where musicals are concerned, especially my favorite musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, which looks as much like cotton candy as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” looks like macarons, and which opens with characters humming the title tune to themselves, so overcome with excitement about the upcoming World’s Fair they can hardly stand it. Of course, sometimes you sing to yourself because you feel sad, like Bruce Springsteen in his New Jersey bedroom on January 3, 1982. And Demy sees where those two universes collide, where joy gives way to melancholy, where color gives way to drab.

Divided into three sections, the movie opens at a gas station where Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) says sings to his boss that, no, he can’t work late that night and fix this guy’s car because he’s squiring his one true love, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), to the movies, a commitment to a life of leisure rather than workaday monotony that I respected and which only feels amplified by the dialogue in verse. These sticky-sweet opening passages, though, don’t really hint at what’s to come – that is, Guy being drafted into the Algerian War, promising to write Geneviève but then never really writing at all, leaving Geneviève home, alone and pregnant with his child, leading her to eventually marry Roland (Marc Michel), a wealthy if kind Parisian jeweler instead, leaving Guy forlorn when he returns and then wedding Madeleine (Ellen Farner), caretaker for his mother, starting a family and buying a gas station of his own.

EDIT: I did not think it hinted at what’s to come. Because, I confess, it wasn’t until after I watched the movie, when I read a piece at my old Slant stomping grounds by Veronika Ferdman, that I realized Roland is the owner of the car Guy tells his boss he won’t stay late to repair. That’s partially because Roland, dressed all in black, is costumed not to stand out in a landscape where almost everything pops, though, as Ferdman notes, this “marks him as a sort of grim reaper.” That’s true, a glimpse, even if I failed to glimpse it, as if I was in the same headspace as Guy (so maybe it was appropriate?), though as Ferdman goes on to write, “Roland is a deeply caring and kind man, one who has known his fair share of heartache (being left by his Great love Lola), and one who is done with childish caprices, ready to be with someone in a love of lifelong metamorphosis.”

In these clear delineations, Demy is allowing something deeper and truer to emerge, just like Geneviève’s mother, who is not a mere interferer where true love is concerned, even as she councils her daughter to accept the more practical match, than some drawing on the wisdom of her years. Indeed, as Jim Ridley notes in his Criterion essay on the film, she wants Geneviève to “think of Guy’s callowness and the grim economic realities” and of our own “grudging awareness that she speaks the truth”, which isn’t like any storybook story I’ve ever read.

The vibrant colors, then, that dominate so much of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, fade as the movie goes along and Geneviève and Guy’s stories break apart and run parallel, denoted in her marriage ceremony to Roland, where typical wedding colors – his black suit, her white dress – signal a mature acceptance of love just as his taking ownership of a gas station to provide for Madeleine signals the same. Crucially, however, this is presented as fatalism, merely the way the world goes round.

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