The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Directed by: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon
“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a timeless French musical that elevates the genre with its entirely sung dialogue, showcasing the bittersweet tale of young love and the impact of separation during the Algerian War. Its innovative use of vibrant colors, emotionally resonant music, and heartfelt performances by the cast have solidified its place in cinema history. With its enduring influence on the musical film landscape, this masterpiece continues to inspire filmmakers and captivate audiences worldwide.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Critics, 87% Audiences
Originally, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was supposed to go in my April theme, April in Paris. My earlier themes this year, however, had me viewing five French films in three months, so I did April NOT in Paris. I was then going to slot it in my September on the Stage theme, but it doesn’t take place on a stage, so it didn’t make good company with Cats Don’t Dance.
Therefore, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is getting its due in November, as this month’s theme is snippets from other themes of this year:
Genevieve works as a shop hand for her mother at an umbrella shop in Cherbourg, France, while her boyfriend, Guy, works nearby as a mechanic. They’re madly in love and plan to get engaged when Guy gets drafted to join the Algerian war. After one last night of passion, Genevieve becomes pregnant.
Facing financial ruin, Genevieve’s mother, Madame Emery, attempts to convince her daughter to marry someone for financial safety instead. Emery’s target is Roland, the rich, kind jeweler. After much persuasion (more on this later), Genevieve weds Roland and the pair move to the countryside, taking Madame Emery with them.
Guy, meanwhile, returns home early because he was wounded in combat. Upon learning that Genevieve has left, he is wounded emotionally, entering a spiral of despair and destructive behavior. Concerned, Madeliene, the caretaker of Guy’s ailing aunt, intervenes. Madeliene’s friendship brings Guy back from the brink, and his appreciation becomes affection. The two marry, starting a family as well as a gas station and car repair shop.
Five years later, Genevieve and her daughter by chance stop to fill at Guy’s gas station. The two reflect on their lives and realize that, though they had a romance for the ages, they lacked the faith to seize it. The pair part, content with the lives they do have.
The audience, however, is left devastated.
As the credits rolled, I went to the thesaurus to look up synonyms for gorgeous because the word didn’t do this movie justice. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is simultaneously, dazzling, plush, devastating, and swanky. James Bond WISHES he looked this good. The filmmakers, cast, and crew intentionally blocked, costumed, and photographed the film in an attempt to make the viewers’ retinas explode from witnessing such beauty.
Color theorists should approach this movie with caution, however, because their brains may melt halfway through from processing so much information. Only a couple of movies come to mind that match The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s ambitions (Hero and Vertigo for those curious). The experience is truly astounding.
…Oh, right, the plot!
I was surprised at first because literally every word is sung. Technically, that makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg an opera! Even stranger, the movie is written like a screenplay, but everything is lyrical. That means that even mundane throwaway lines like “See you later!” or “Come in, please.” are sung with a distinct rhyme and pattern.
The cumulative effect, from both the intentional look and the intentional writing, felt ominous, like these characters were fated to their ends to which they’d been destined.
Yes, that’s how all movies work, but I felt The Umbrellas of Cherbourg took pains to keep the audience aware of this fact. The opera of mundanity device made me feel like the characters had no control over their lives, that no decision was any one person’s fault. While this aspect is one of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s greatest strengths, it also is the source of an initial frustration I had with the film.
While, many times, life throws a person factors out of one’s control, the heartrending results of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are caused by the machinations of one person: Madame Emery, Genevieve’s utterly wicked mother.
I swear this isn’t a recurring feature, but I must stress that this woman is near as bad as a Disney Princess’ stepmother. The ways in which Madame Emery needles and warps her daughter’s mind are unsettling and done purely for short-term, selfish gain.
Yeah, Genevieve could’ve told her mother to buzz off, but Madame Emery was her source of food and housing, and she was pregnant and technically unwed.
Perhaps, then The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s greatest takeaway is to live for yourself. Even if life is fated, it’s not dictated.
Its love will last through the ages!
Because of the candy-colored imagery, nostalgic setting, and operatic romance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is perfect for a snowy day in–a box of chocolates in one hand, a box of tissues in the other. Much like In the Mood for Love, I’m not sure if this movie’s quite right for Valentine’s Day because of its cautionary ending–though both movies’ sumptuous looks and grand emotions fit the occasion.
On the one hand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will satisfy many female audiences, but its mature themes and expert cinematic eye will prove worthwhile for anyone looking for a classy date movie.
Ironically, the foreign language isn’t an obstacle to enjoyment, rather a boon, as many associate the French language with beauty and romance. Who knows? Maybe people who don’t normally read subtitles will take a chance after watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Plus, afterwards, viewers can brag to their friends about how cultured they are because they watched a 60-year-old French film!
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