Director: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel
There’s a long list of things I can thank my grandmother for; helping to give me a lovely childhood, being a calming and wise presence in my more difficult adult years, and even my secret knitting skills. You can now add to that list, the introduction to a most delightful French musical. After I fell in love with ‘La La Land’ earlier this year, my grandmother has urged me to watch ‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’ to behold one of the inspirations for Damien Chazelle’s modern classic, and to feed my newfound love for musicals. A few years ago, a more foolish and ignorant me wouldn’t go near a foreign language film or a musical, but now I’ve fallen in love with a combo of the two. So much so, that I found myself compelled to write my first review in a very, very long time.
Anyone who’s seen ‘La La Land’ will immediately spot the similarities here as I break down the plot for you. We meet two young lovers who are absolutely crazy about each other, intent on spending the rest of their life together. That is until fate tears them apart and puts their lives on different tracks. Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is shipped off to complete his military duty, leaving Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) in Cherbourg to pine for her lover for two years. Through fear of being alone, under pressure from her mother (Anne Vernon), and suffering from the cruel absence of her love, Genevieve eventually gives in and accepts the marriage proposal of another – Roland (Marc Michel). Years later, they will meet once more, both now very different people leading very different lives.
Now, I’ve always been of the opinion that most actors from this period are usually pretty poor and lack subtlety, save for a few exceptions of course. The golden age of Hollywood has given us many great stories, but there just wasn’t the kind of nuance and craft in the acting that we so often see today. Well, let me tell you, Catherine Deneuve is certainly an exception to that. Her performance here blew me away. Sincere and genuine, I truly felt and believed the emotional rollercoaster she went on over the course of this story. When people say “it’s all in the eyes”, this performance is what they’re talking about. Her co-star, Castelnuovo, was far more impressive once when he returned, and has to deal with the crushing heartache of losing his true love to another. Whilst he is rather one-dimensional and generic in the first act of the film, Castelnuovo more than makes up for that in the final act, delivering plenty of emotion and actually becoming rather endearing as we see his character develop.
The film is most definitely strongest in its bookends, with act one and act three providing moments of touching romanticism, and cruel fate. But, the story does arguably lose some steam in the middle, when our lovers are separated – which I would say is no coincidence. The short runtime (just over 80 minutes) does leave the decisions that are made and the direction the story heads in seeming even more rash, shall we say. Perhaps Genevieve and her choices are flawed, but aren’t we all? Maybe she gives up on love too quickly. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we all could learn from this and be more patient and romantic. It’s funny how a film from 50 years ago still resonates so much and can reflect the intricate, complicated mess that human relationships remain.
The inspiration for ‘La La Land’ doesn’t end with the narrative here, with Chazelle and his team clearly taking note of the audio and visual treats on offer too. The colourful costumes and set designs were meticulously beautiful, and you can really sense the care and ambition that went into creating such a wonderful aesthetic. For a film of its era, ‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’ is so impressive, and still holds up today. The ever-present, all-important music, by legendary composer Michel Legrand, is also sublime. Legrand perfectly picks every note along the way, creating more than just an accompaniment, but something which is crucial to the overall experience. I guess that pretty much goes without saying when it comes to a musical, but crafting something like this is no mean feat, I’m sure. There is an exquisite simplicity to the whole picture, which only adds to how stunning it all is. Chazelle clearly has great taste, as does my grandmother.
This is really a love letter, from me to Demy. I couldn’t criticise this film even if I wanted to, or had cause to. Sure, its cheesy and somewhat dated, but it’s a musical from 1964, what do you expect? I don’t know what it is, but I just get so affected by stories like these, where young love doesn’t quite work out how it should, or how we want it to – there’s something so beautifully tragic about it all. Whilst I would still argue that ‘La La Land’ is better (sorry Nan), for those wanting to discover cinematic classics, magical musicals, or take a foray in to French cinema – or all three – please watch ‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’. It is short but sweet; gorgeous to look at and to listen to; an iconic piece of cinema.