The de facto line about Jacques Demy’s bubbly musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it is so gleefully and willfully out of touch with the corpus of French New Wave films being released vociferously throughout the 1960s. This is a point of great merit. Compared to, say, Godard’s Breathless, Demy’s Cherbourg is a less cantankerous sort that is less tethered to being violently abusive to cinema. Demy, along with many of the Left Bank directors of the New Wave, was more classicist than someone like Godard to be sure, and he was less drawn to a critique of Hollywood styles. The spirit of defiant rejection of the defiant rejection of the New Wave is very much present and accounted for in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as loving a tribute to the Hollywood musical as you could hope to find.
What is unaccounted for in this claim is how The Umbrellas of Cherbourg could not have been made at any point in time and place other than amidst the tumult and disarray of the French New Wave. The great lie of the New Wave, or more a trick than a lie, is that they convinced audiences they hated cinema. That could not be further from the truth. Godard himself is as rampant a cinephile as you could imagine, not only a scholar but an enthusiast. All of his films are not only brash exercise in cinematic criticism but loving statements full of youthful vigor that are high on the power of cinema. His films boil with cinematic overflow; a person could not dedicate so much of their passion and energy into redefining and rereading genre cinema history without truly giving their being over to the art form, could they?
Demy’s film is just a tad less acerbic about its love, when all is said and done, but it is a quintessential New Wave film, bearing all the hallmarks of the form. It finds itself bewitched by a youthful outlaw quality very much indebted to American and European youth culture of the 1950s (Nicholas Ray, perpetual guiding spirit of the New Wave from across the ocean, looms large over Cherbourg). With percolating pop-art colors and gesticulating camera gestures (by cinematographer Jean Rabier), Demy demonstrates a sheer delight at the face of cinema, and he is drawn, as Godard and Truffaut were, to the flesh and blood of cinematic style as an explosion of spry spirits.
Of course, the best sort of cinematic adoration is love that experiments with cinema, rather than simply accepts it as it is. Thus, Demy, like Godard, exposes a fascination with cinema as an outlet for youthfulness to express the singular, uncomplicated emotions of adolescence with unrepressed sincerity and booming exuberance. Cherbourg is a naïve film, in the way that most film musicals had been and were naïve, but it is not a satire nor a parody. It is a desperately, cravingly honest film in love with the musical as an outlet for personal expression unbothered by claims of realism or subtlety. Like Nicholas Ray, Demy aims for the rafters with vigorous, unabashed melodrama and sincerity, and he gets there too.
Cherbourg is not simply a musical however. It is an exploration of the musical form, a film pulsing with new ideas about what a musical could be and implicitly what the cultural purpose of a musical was. The day-glo colors that vocally trumpet their Technicolor artifice are one clue to the New Wave’s commentary on, and admiration for, the artificial qualities of cinema. But the specificity of the musical, as an artificial construct for humans to spread rumors and tell tales about their inner-most desires and sumptuous passions, intoxicates Demy. He is fascinated with how various film genres breathe truth about society, and how to push film genres to their limits (the essence of Godard, by the way). That Godard chose film noir and Demy the musical genre does not indicate their polar opposite interpretations of cinema, but simply that they found different niches or variations on the same theme. For him, the musical is a collective dream world where teenagers could go to live the lives of their inner beings, a world where they could express themselves freely and in a manner of their choosing. His film, like all the New Wave films, trumpets the artificial qualities of cinema as an avenue for exploring the truths of desire, the truths of the mind.
With Cherbourg, his film follows an unapologetically traditional tale of unrequited and interrupted love between youths in the small coastal French town of Cherbourg. The four participants are Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve), whose mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) owns an umbrella shop, the mechanic Geneviève beckons for, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who is called away to the Algerian War, Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who cares for Guy’s aunt and loves Guy unbeknownst to him, and wealthy Roland (Marc Michel), who genuinely loves and pines for Geneviève in Guy’s absence when Guy seems uninterested in responding to her.
Most notably, Demy shows no antipathy or disagreement toward any of the characters. They are trapped in the spider’s web of love and emotion, but each is a genuinely sympathetic soul torn apart not by devious thoughts, but simply doubts and worries. Perhaps, for this reason, he does not doll out a typical villain’s theme in his musical, nor much in the way of specific theme at all. If Umbrellas is not only a eulogy to the musical but a dissection of the form, it dissects with the scalpel of indiscretion, choosing not to specify moments for designated singing, but to spread the love all around. Every line in the film is lilted and sung with a slight twitch of story-song harmony, although the film experiments with melody primarily through repetition and minimalism. The film does not define songs, nor even particular melodies, so much as it pushes the limits of melody by spreading it thinly over the narrative until the procession swims and gracefully flows forth rather than bursting into ostentatious production numbers. There are no “song-and-dance” numbers in Umbrellas; instead, lines of dialogue bleed into music and tease out where dialogue ends and singing begins.
With every line occupying the same musical register, Demy experiments with the idea that a light melody can contextually convey whimsy, wistful memory, unrepentant joy, bewitching passion, and untamed sadness. He doesn’t so much vary the music as the context in which the music is presented. The idea of a “song” is stretched to its breaking point until the film reconnects with opera more than the movie musical, albeit without the preening and posturing inherent to opera.
The other central fascination of Cherbourg is how wonderfully mundane it is, and how breathily the lines are sung, as though the characters are fighting to continue the cascading breathlessness of the music and debating with the idea of expressing their emotions at all. It is an internal filmic dialectic between characters who are placed into a genre where they must express their emotions, but who feel so broken down that expression is both an act of emotional necessity (to free them from their thoughts) and a burden to keep (the music must free them from their thoughts until they seem to become locked into the music such that they have no escape from endless expression). Fittingly, the score by Michel Legrand feels at once improvisational and rigid, like a deconstruction of a song pulled apart until the deconstruction becomes its own metronomic logic.
No film then, excepting perhaps Pennies from Heaven much later, is as fundamentally conflicted about the idea of the movie musical; Demy reveals how the musical is both a fitful adolescent escape of dreamlike expression and a prison where adolescents have to keep up the dream so that they don’t realize the pains of everyday life. Umbrellas is what happens when dreaming becomes your only respite from everyday life, and endless dreaming takes away any actual ability one has to confront that life outside of the dream.
All of this is wrapped up in a film of delightfully anti-mature storytelling mechanisms that reveal maturity the further they progress (the film boasts a shockingly mature, relaxed view of teen pregnancy, for one). Which is perfect for the film – a film about youths growing up delivered in a style where youthful filmmaking reveals maturity. Umbrellas isn’t the most challenging, or even the most fun film of the New Wave (for all his enemies, I’ve always found Godard an eminently watchable filmmaker in addition to a challenging one). But, excepting Singin’ in the Rain, Umbrellas of Cherbourg may have more to say about the movie musical than any film, and it certainly has a more thorough way to say it.