Les parapluies de Cherbourg
Review by Ben Ewing
Posted on 17 February 2010
Source Fox Lorber DVD
Colors. Red, yellow, green, pink! Umbrellas. Twirls, songs, pangs, love!
Deep and abiding affection for any artistic medium often resembles – and perhaps even requires – child-like wonderment at its basic building blocks. This has perhaps never been truer than it was for Cahiers du cinéma, the journal of film criticism that provided the theoretical impetus and promotional arm for the French New Wave of the 1960s. Cahiers simultaneously lambasted1 the middlebrow literariness of the French “Tradition of Quality” and defended films treating ordinary people, gangsters, and even over-the-top melodrama with style that, though unpolished or even uncouth by certain standards, was adventurous and sensitive to the particular capacities of film over other mediums. Whether it was Godard quipping that a tracking shot is a moral statement or Truffaut waxing poetic about a director’s ability to impart his singular worldview, the critics and directors behind the Nouvelle Vague showed a consistent preoccupation with film as such.
Married to Agnès Varda, “godmother” of the Nouvelle Vague, Jacques Demy has never been consistently tied to that movement, but his preoccupation with polished formal play made him something of a kindred spirit with a difference. Though friendly with Godard and Truffaut (both of whom helped him obtain funding for films), Demy has been characterized not as a full-fledged compatriot but rather, as a director who stood at the intersection of the New Wave and the French “Tradition of Quality.”2 Rodney Hill has argued convincingly that while Demy’s professionalism, Frenchness, and big-budget style distinguished him from New Wave contemporaries, his concern for ordinary and contemporary life, his auteurist approach to filmmaking (writing scripts himself and creating distinctively stylized worlds for film),3 and his reflexive self-consciousness all linked him with the new cinema.
Still, Demy’s relationship to the New Wave is less than fully resolved, partly because of a nagging point of contention in assessing him, and especially his best-known and loved film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Granted, the stylistic affectations are dazzling, but to what end? For all the differences among its directors, the Nouvelle Vague has come to stand, at the least, for a determination to recreate cinema and push it forward. Demy’s hermetic musicals were surely bold. But is there an impulse toward progress amidst their nostalgia? Or is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg an example of what Jane Feuer has called the “conservative reflexivity” of Hollywood musicals?4 Are its could-be Brechtian distancing techniques – “fourth wall”-breaking direct addresses by characters, intertextual references to musical theatre and other films, recitative for all the film’s dialogue, and over-the-top colored walls and patterned wallpapers – a mere celebration of the “world of entertainment”? Do such tricks inhere in the very form of the musical and therefore fail to push its viewers to think critically?
Hill has disputed this view strenuously, calling Demy a “quasi-Brechtian.” To my mind, though, this tack is unnecessary for a defense of Demy against claims of conservatism. Hill has it right when he more directly disclaims the false dichotomy between Hollywood conservatism and Godardian or Brechtian progressivism, and not simply because, as he says, “some of [Hollywood’s] films achieve quasi-Brechtian distanciation from time to time.”5 In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, devices that in other hands might generate critical perspective on art instead work against a complacent, reductionist view of love. Whereas Godard’s more overtly deconstructionist musical, A Woman is a Woman, uses stylistic devices to reflect on film qua film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg directs its visual and musical feats toward nuanced understanding in a different realm: the bittersweet triangle of love, longing, and loss.
The plot is simple romantic tragedy: Geneviève is separated from her young lover Guy when he is called to fight in Algeria, and after contact from him dissipates, she bears their child and resignedly marries another man. But the story is in the telling. The second piece in Demy’s informal romantic trilogy – Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort being the first and third, respectively – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is its own fantastical world. Michel Legrand’s score anchors it in a delightfully French take on the Great American Songbook, combining the swing and flair of jazz with the orchestral sweep of Western art music. And Demy’s camera takes us through it with ceaseless grace, moving toward and away from characters, following their walks down avenues and swirling around corners.
In one scene, before war parts the young lovers, the two glide down an empty alleyway, leaning on each other and a bicycle, until they reach a turn and Demy cuts to a new angle and greater distance. Geneviève sings of her doubts and anticipated longings and Guy reassures her with pledges of fidelity and everlasting love. With a green wall on their left and another behind them painted pink with splashes of yellow and black, the two embrace. The unabashed playfulness of the colors keeps the bright spirit of young love from being lost amidst the threat of the coming separation. Later, when the two are momentarily brought together again for the film’s heartrending dénouement, the visual cues are similarly perfect: when their eyes meet they are separated by the glass of her car’s window and the winter’s snow floats down like fairy dust. We experience the lightness of fleeting former joys as the flakes float downward, and the weight of the past, as a coat of white accumulates on the ground.
The film’s achievement is both formal and philosophical: a unity of sweetness and sorrow that scarcely diminishes either. We may see fewer “happy” times, but the preciousness of the mise-en-scène is unrelenting-it both harkens to earlier and always possible joys and heightens the grief. Though the film is a romantic tragedy, the eventual sadness is a means of understanding, rather than refuting, the initial bliss. Insightfully, the film suggests that the hope and longing of budding romance find their deepest meaning only in relation to the cold practicalities and trudging compromises of life that goes on. The most poignant moments in the film suggest the mutual dependence of these polar emotional states by juxtaposing lyrical beauty and visual delicacy with painful emotions that song persists through but cannot cover up. Those rain drops and splashes of color with which the film is drenched, those supple young beauties—they draw you in immediately with the charms of their surfaces, but they hold your sympathy, and your suspended credulity, because of the melancholy beneath.
If it’s not pure magic, neither is it empty or complacent style. One needn’t be a child to be a wee bit moved.