A Meditation on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy is a colorful and musical film that offered escape to audiences throughout the world upon its initial release in 1964.  It was an escape from both the political and reflexive “French New Wave” and the mediocrity of Hollywood (which had been in slow decline since the late 1950s, and still awaiting the “New Hollywood” that would be ushered in by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967).  Yet, Demy combined aesthetics of the two with romantic whimsy and a nostalgia other French filmmakers of his day seem less inclined to offer in their films for the flamboyance and fantasy of Hollywood musicals like Du Berry Was A Lady, Singin’ In The Rain or Guys & Dolls. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also the film that made Catherine Deneuve an international star.

The narrative of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a familiar tale of romance and coming of age, but in its execution as a film presents something new and still innovative today.  Demy’s operetta film has a lush, rich color familiar to film buffs as the trademark of Hollywood glamour, and the visual palette of Jerry Lewis (particularly his film Cinderfella) and the dramatic use of color in the Powell & Pressburger films like The Red Shoes and The Tales Of Hoffmann.  The Eastman Color Process employed enabled Demy to transcend his audience to the film’s musical fairy tale setting.  Further, the cinematographer Jean Rabier was a long time collaborator of Demy’s (as well as with Demy’s wife filmmaker Agnes Varda) and that intimacy of artistic collaboration can be felt in the nuance of the camera’s movement as well as the iconic color scheme.

Still, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is equally famous as a musical, impeccably scored by Michel Legrand.  One may even draw a parallel between Demy and Legrand with the director and musician collaboration of Brecht and Weill or Fassbinder and Raben.  The two artists worked together on the final sound, texture and overall meaning of the music in the film, perceiving each other as equals, a rare occurrence in the cinema when dealing with composers.  Regardless, Legrand had made a name for himself years earlier in the previous decade for his work as a performer and sometimes arranger with esteemed jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Stan Getz.  His work in the jazz medium made him an ideal choice for Demy, for not only has jazz always been in vogue in France, but Legrand’s expertise in musical improvisation enabled him to work quickly and efficiently under the demands of the film making process.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is finally, in the context of Demy’s career, his masterpiece.  Unlike other “New Wave” films (and the root of my hesitation to call it as such), it deals with film genres without the dry and esoteric manner of Godard. It is rather more entertained with its self, becomes playful with the conventions of its genre. In this, Demy has been able to stand out from his peers, and has been able to make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a film accessible to all audiences.

By Robert Curry

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