Colors in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Don’t be fooled. Catherine Deneuve can’t sing. Throughout The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an operetta composed by Michel Legrand, Deneuve lip-synchs through the entire score of the musical. Umbrellas carries a continuous score; meaning even insignificant dialogue and small talk are all sung. American audiences are used to musicals with show-stopping, fantastical songs that interrupt the plot. The difference in structure makes Umbrellas seem long-winded and drawn out, and American audiences might lose patience quickly. Director Jacques Demy counters this threat with vibrant and loud color schemes that hold his audience’s attention.

The score, though long-winded, is beautiful and original. Surprisingly enough, the film is stunning to watch as well. The opening scene shows umbrellas of all colors popping up and dancing through the streets. They seem to be without rhyme or reason, but the umbrellas manage to create a fluid and beautiful spectacle that accompanies the film’s exposition of the primary musical theme. From that point on, Demy very obviously employs bold, vibrant colors to illustrate the ornamental and vivacious tone of the film. The umbrellas are only a small taste of the lively palette that paints the rest of the movie. The backgrounds are frequently green and purple, and the female leads are clad in brilliant reds and yellows. Wallpapers swirl with oranges and whites, and alley ways are bright blue and green. Sometimes the costumes blend with the blinding hues of the background. The viewer easily gets lost in the dizzying effect of mixed, layered, and swirled primary colors.

Demy’s motives would be much easier to decipher had he assigned one color to Deneuve, such as persistently dressing her in blue. However, Demy does not limit himself to one color, one character, or even one theme. He uses an array of colors in a many different places. Perhaps Demy used such a vibrant palette to liven up Deneuve’s dull, lonely, and unmotivated life. Or perhaps he worried that his audience would get lost or bored amidst such a long and continuous score, and as a solution splattered the film with colors that would distract and intrigue his viewers. Regardless of his reasoning, Deny made sure that the visual quality of the film did not fall under the music’s shadow.

Deny’s color palette was so vibrant because he used a special Eastman negative film stock. It served its purpose very well, but faded and deteriorated rapidly. Luckily Demy was prepared for this, and made black and white copies of his negatives that were later used for a complete restoration process. In the late ninetees, Demy’s wife Agnes Varda headed a restoration process using the black and white negatives. Koch-Lorber Films released the new DVD with a color palette very close to its original, and a digitally remastered score from composer Michel Legrand. The DVD had a very limited release in the United States, therefore prices are sky high. Instead, join us this Wednesday for a screening of the film!

By Laura Kinter

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