Editor’s note: this article contains spoilers for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I have a soft spot for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg). Directed by Jacques Demy, this 1964 French musical doesn’t just belong to the realm of musical lovers: I’ve spoken to people who, even though they can’t abide showtunes, nevertheless love Umbrellas. It’s perhaps one of the best forms of escapism mixed with realism — Demy’s contribution to the French New Wave distinct from, but linked to, his wife Agnes Varda’s. It’s a film rich with gorgeous cinematography, vibrant set pieces, and memorable characters.
Umbrellas has had a recent theatrical re-release as part of the BFI and its Musicals season, but while it lends itself to the Christmas period, it’s really an evergreen film. The story is paced slowly enough that it’s memorable for its plot and its introduction of new characters as well as for its peerless production design, and the intense performances from its frontrunners Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castenuovo set it apart from melodramas and romcoms, instead solidifying it as a study on performance as well as design.
Set in the quiet town of Cherbourg, Umbrellas tells the story of a young couple, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful 17-year-old living and working with her mother (Anne Vernon) in an umbrella shop, and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a 20-year-old mechanic. They share a brief but intense love affair before having to part: Geneviève falls pregnant with Guy’s baby just before he is conscripted to join the army for the war in Algeria for two years. The film spans the course of two years in depth, and in fact the couple together only occupy a short segment: the second and third acts of the film are concerned with their separation.
Meanwhile, Genevieve’s mother, Madame Emery, pushes her daughter towards a wealthy diamond dealer named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). The difference in age between the actors (Anne Vernon was only 39 at the time of filming, and Michel only 35) leads one to believe that there may well have been some attraction between the characters. Nevertheless, she pushes her daughter towards this cultured (but somewhat cold) man of travel and hopes to raise their social aspirations through him, to Genevieve’s distress. It’s a multi-generational film about pragmatism versus the optimism and naivety of youth.
I watch Umbrellas once a year — and only once — because it’s so bright and intense that I don’t want to spoil it. Imagine it as an irresistible shot of colour, sounds and flavours. Too much and you’d regret it; but just the right dose and it’s a little indulgence. The combination of bright images and a soaring, string-based score composed by Michael Legrand means the musical plays out more like a melodrama than playing to the standard conventions of a stage-to-screen adaptation. Demy has conjured an aesthetically brilliant film, charming to revisit.
The opening sequence of Umbrellas sees Geneviève rapturously happy during a secret rendezvous with Guy. The setup itself is pleasant, economically pointing immediately to their working class roots and the luxury of life on the other side in the form of customers who visit the shop. Geneviève has to run back to help her mother but spots Guy across the road. She’s framed by an aura of colourful umbrellas and wallpaper as she beams at him out of the window, and it’s charming in every sense: beautifully lit, beautifully framed, a beautiful girl.
It’s a film that touches on the cliche and the hyperbole of first love, but the couple are forced to live in the real world and confront their circumstances. In fact, the film throughout captures the fun of the swinging 60s with the tension of Geneviève and her overbearing but well-meaning mother struggling to make ends meet and to appear respectable in society. What I find most striking about the film is its final scene, which takes place on a snowy Christmas Eve night. It’s a culmination of all the years that two lovers have been separated and wishing they could be together again. Although the festivities commence, we’re under the impression that Guy and Geneviève still occupy their own little world.
I wouldn’t describe Umbrellas as a feel-good film, but the pleasure derived from watching it feels much more permanent than from a saccharine, festive romcom. The artistic representation of first love in the face of realistic circumstances in French society, where the odds are weighted against the youngsters. It’s also a film about the passing of seasons and about reflection.
Demy’s musical came towards the end of the pioneering French New Wave movement, but it’s rooted in opera, the whole film sung throughout. Although there have been mixed responses to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, which set out to do the same thing, Umbrellas is different because it was created organically to be shown on film.
In addition to this, the film’s colour palette is exceptional. The already modish 1960s interior decor of the umbrella shop run by mother and daughter is brought to life entirely by its beautiful colour scheme: florals, prints and block colours are used liberally and make the production design so much more memorable than other films of the period. It’s another reason way in which the film lends itself to revisiting: the warm, vibrant colours light things up at any time of year
It’s dissimilar to many classic musicals because it pares down some of the overt theatricality. For example, there is usually a sequence called a dream ballet. This is most evident in a film like An American in Paris, in which Gene Kelly enacts a fantasy version of the story over the course of a few minutes or La La Land’s climax, where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance through a version of the story they could have had. Less overtly theatrical, Umbrellas still has a semblance of the dream ballet in the interaction between Guy and Geneviève but it’s more evenly paced — every moment between them feels like a dream as they sing and seem to float through brightly coloured streets together. Their musical leans more into realism than it does theatricality, which is what makes it appealing to all kinds of spectators, no matter their predispositions to the genre.
In an interview with the BFI, Catherine Deneuve explained some of her views on the film, her career, and Demy’s direction. She described him as quite harsh when it came to accuracy on set. Although a perfectionist to the detriment of some of the cast and crew working at the time — it proved to be a demanding production — the hard work paid off and we get the film we love today. She also described the way actors had little leeway when it came to their performances: they were required to act to musical cues, which makes the final product all the better.
Lovers of La La Land might be aware of the musical by association: Damien Chazelle has cited Umbrellas as one of the most important influences on his musical. It’s apparent from tiny details, like the sign opposite Mia’s cafe in the Warner Bros. lot, the Casablanca window which Seb points out, which has the signage Parapluies (from the French) directly underneath.
It’s not only that La La Land resembles the film in detail: structurally, it concerns a couple fated to cross but never to be. Young Guy and Geneviève are the star-crossed lovers (a further influence on Damien Chazelle’s work is apparent: his first short, black-and-white musical was entitled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Madeline being the second woman Guy takes up with in Umbrellas). The film’s influence can’t be overstated, setting out as it does a simple story that’s easy to replicate and reform, with production design that’s second to none. Now musicals can only hope to pay homage to this wonderful piece.
The reason I think The Umbrellas of Cherbourg should be remembered in particular is because of its vibrancy, out-doing a lot of the work of the contemporary period. It remains not only a classic romance-tragedy, but it also borrows from the conventions of opera, which makes it a timeless little piece of magic. In a genre that’s often treated with condescension because of its lightness, it’s performances bring gravity and sincerity. It’s easy to fall in love with the characters and to hope that they will turn out happy: after all, it’s an ode to the brilliance of youth and how everything else pales in comparison.