The Exquisite Heartbreak of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine Deneuve’s pastel-coloured world. Image: Little White Lies

It’s a movie that’s sung.

We don’t mean it’s a musical where actors burst into occasional song. Nay, this is a movie where everything is sung, like an opera – yet it doesn’t feel like an opera.

Maybe we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

The film in question is Jacques Demy’s brightly-coloured Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), released in 1964. The film takes place in 1957, in Cherbourg, a town on the northwest coast of France.

This is the film that made Catherine Deneuve a Star. She plays the daughter of an umbrella shop proprietress and, although her mother’s umbrella shop is failing – quelle surprise – Deneuve glides through a candy-coated world, thanks to her handsome boyfriend, Nino Castelnuovo.

Sadly, this idyllic life has a Best Before date: Castelnuovo is called up for his two years’ compulsory military service. After he leaves – and doesn’t contact her – Deneuve discovers she is pregnant.

This presents Deneuve’s mother, the beautifully-coiffed Anne Vernon, with some Tough Choices. Her business is unsuccessful, and she’s running out of jewellery to sell off. She can’t support her daughter and a grandchild.

So when she meets the rich, suave Marc Michel, she immediately Gets to Work brokering a marriage for Deneuve.

You see, this is a simple story; pure melodrama. But because everything here is sung, it’s haunting, poignant.

It is exquisite heartbreak.

Nino Castelnuovo says goodbye to Deneuve. Image: The Hand Grenade

At first, we scoffed at this film. We rolled our eyes at the notion of an Umbrellas-Only shop. We raised our eyebrows at the unrealistic colours. And who chose that ridiculous wallpaper?

Then there’s the sung dialogue, even the humdrum stuff like, “What are you doing tonight?” and “Madeleine is coming to give me my shot.”

However. Ten minutes into the film we suddenly Let Go of what a film is “supposed” to be, and we fell in love with it: The singing, the colours, the ridiculous wallpaper.

And yet. Everything about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is ludicrous. So why does it work?

Bill Webber, in his 2013 review for Slate magazine, writes, “Demy consciously upped the ante of artifice with his candy-hued spectrum, an entire off-screen cast singing for his lip-synching actors, and in nonstop reliance on his composer’s melodies…to carry the plot.”¹

“[I]n his artistic audacity, Demy allows the whole story to play out in song, even the mundane moments,” writes Tynan Yanaga of Film Inquiry. “It ultimately gives the film a cohesive quality that…cycles through the gamut of emotions, from youthful exuberance and euphoric reverie to the incalculable melancholy of loss.”²

It shows remarkable daring and vision, especially in an era when filmmakers were striving to portray realism on screen.

Anne Vernon (r) doesn’t let stress interfere with couture. Image: The Playlist

Writer/director Jacques Demy began his film career as an assistant in the 1950s. He then began directing shorts before tackling his first feature-length film, Lola in 1961.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg brought Demy worldwide acclaim. It won three awards at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, including the Palme d’Or. It was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 1965 Academy Awards, and was nominated for four more Oscars in 1966.

According to Wikipedia, Demy knew the film’s colour negatives would eventually fade and lose their bright colours. The site says “Demy had made the three main yellow, cyan and magenta color separation masters on black-and-white negative films, which do not fade.”³

After Demy’s death in 1990, his wife, film director Agnès Varda, began working on a restoration process from these black-and-white separations. A restored film was released in 2004, and a digital version was released in 2013.

We were lucky enough to see the restored film at last year’s Vintage Film Festival. If you ever have the chance to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on the big screen, we implore you to Drop Everything and Go.

Sources

¹Slant. (Retrieved December 28, 2018.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, by Bill Webber.
²Film Inquiry. (Retrieved January 1, 2019.) The Beginner’s Guide: Jacques Demy, Director, by Tynan Yanaga.
³Wikipedia. (Retrieved December 29, 2018.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon. Written & directed by Jacques Demy. Parc Film, 1964, Colour, 91 mins.

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22 comments

  1. Seeing this on the big screen must have been incredible! It’s one of those films that completely absorbs you into its world, and I would think the effect would be even stronger in a darkened theater.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m very glad you fell for this one, Ruth, it is so unique and, to paraphrase, exquisitely heart wrenching. “Young Girls” doesn’t really measure up, though it is fun to watch. Particularly since Deneuve’s sister, Francoise Dorleac – who co-stars, died in a car accident not long after.

    I was delighted that Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” had been so clearly and profoundly influenced by “Umbrellas” and “Young Girls.” It took some daring and vision on his part, too, to make a film so obviously out of step with the types of films made today, mostly CGI extravaganzas and precious Indies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You said it! After I saw “Umbrellas”, I could see its influence on La La Land, and I agree Damien C. had a lot of guts and remarkable vision to make that film in the age of superheroes.

      Will look for “Girls”, but won’t expect another “Umbrellas”. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good review. A colorful and charming film! The dialogue sung by the characters is shocking at first but, as you say, the viewer gets used to the super stylized approach. Deneuve is very beautiful. I think my favorite scene could be the haunting ending, and I hope I get the opportunity to see it in all its glory on the big screen at some point

    Liked by 1 person

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