The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) is a visual masterpiece. Far from the stark monochrome jump cuts of Jean-Luc Godard, contemporary Jacques Demy‘s movie musical explodes with color. Color saturates every frame, and the constant lilting music of every spoken word helps create a fairytale realm that is at once fantastical and all too real.
It would be a mistake to treat the film lightly merely because it happens to be a musical. Starring Nino Castelnuovo and an ethereally beautiful Catherine Deneuve, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg explores love in all its tragic beauty.
Castelnuovo‘s Guy is a down-to-earth gas station jockey, supporting an aged aunt (Mireille Perry). Guy’s young lover, Geneviève (Deneuve), is a seventeen year old bourgeois princess, the daughter of an umbrella shop owner (Anne Vernon). Guy and Geneviève’s romance is cut short when Guy receives his draft notice. The rest of the movie is tragic in its adherence to reality.
The strikingly bright colors of the first act recreate the intense feelings of nascent love. During this portion of the film, the sung dialogue is easy and affably non-serious. It is somehow always raining, and always night, until the day Guy leaves for the military.
Guy’s departure is the first time the camera doesn’t focus intimately close on any of the actors. Rather, we watch from a distance as the little tragedy unfolds. This brightly lit, blandly colored scene marks the beginning of reality for the couple, and the close of the euphoria of first love. It’s an interesting reversal of the traditional association of light with good fortune, and darkness with despair.
Demy imbues much of the film with potent symbols and repeating motifs, not the least of which is the lover’s theme. Modern viewers may recognize it as the translated “I Will Wait For You.” The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical, and all dialogue is sung. However, unlike many musicals, the main theme changes little. It is the same plaintive sad and simple refrain in its first appearance as in the final moments of the film. Michel Legrand‘s score manages to both distance the audience from the characters and draw the audience with a deeper emotional connection than spoken word.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may strike some viewers as cheesy, perhaps dated in its approach of the musical genre. The long tracking shot of Guy and Geneviève floating toward his apartment is certainly at least a little melodramatic. The musical form feels a little forced at first, but taken as a whole, Legrand‘s orchestral score and the constant sing-song speech reinforce the juxtaposition of fantasy love stories with the harsh realities of life.
In the closing scene, Guy and Geneviève share a moment rife with dramatic tension. A gas pump attendant somewhat aggressively interrupts to ask a mundane question. The grand, sweeping romance of Guy and Geneviève is, after all, only grand and sweeping to the two of them. The rest of the world moves on whether or not the film ends with a kiss.
However, the main theme swells only when the two of them are together. No other romantic pairing is graced with a repeated theme. Perhaps, after all, there was only one great love for Guy and Geneviève. It is no longer raining by the film’s finale, but even in the end, the music still plays.