Delightful and enchanting French musical with breathtakingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve in her first major film.
There are many different ways to gauge how successful a movie is at pulling you inside its world, and after watching this 1964 classic I’ve got another one: you know you’re well and truly captivated when you don’t want to get up from the couch and look for the remote to crank up the heating in your apartment, and would rather shiver than break the cinematic spell. And I hate being cold!
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg hooked me right from it arresting title sequence – the overhead view of a cobble-stoned street in the rain, with colourful umbrellas passing by, seemingly at random and yet joined together in a sort of dance. The gloriously vibrant palette thrown over a humdrum life in a drab grey port city continues throughout the film, where practically every shot pops with saturated primary colours and lively pastels: brilliant red and yellow coats worn by the women, alleyways bathed in green and blue, striped pink-and-green wallpapers, at times something as simple as a colourful fruit or a scarf. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that worshiped colour quite as much and the swirl of bold vibrant hues is a pure manna for the eyes.
Another striking aspect of the film that you notice straight away (and one I suspect could be a deal-breaker for some viewers) is that every line of dialogue is sung – regardless of whether the characters wax lyrical about love, or talk about mundane everyday things like gasoline and the price of umbrellas. This is not a typical musical with dance numbers or showstopper songs where the main characters pause to sing about their innermost feelings. The wall-to-wall score by Michel Legrand (sometimes upbeat and jazzy, sometimes slow and contemplative) yields only one signature tune, which, I was surprised to discover, must have been lodged in my brain going as far back as my former life in Russia. I recognised it instantly during the opening credits and the film repeats it later to a wonderful and emotional effect. In a way it reminded me of Once, which also really has one memorable song – but what a song!
The story is simple, and, at first glance, pure froth and bubbles. Catherine Deneuve is Genevieve, a naive seventeen-year-old girl who is head-over-heels in love with a garage mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Her mother, who runs a local umbrella shop, doesn’t approve of their marriage plans and is desperate for cash to save her failing business. When Guy is drafted for two years by the army and sent to Algeria, Genevieve is torn between her love for Guy and the attention of a rich man who wants to marry her.
In retrospect there are some early hints that this might not be the type of movie where young love conquers all: when Genevieve proclaims that she can’t live without Guy, her mother dryly remarks that people only die of love in the movies. Still, I was caught unawares by the fact that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is much sadder and wiser than its candy-store cinematography would suggest. There are no grand villains here, just the realities of life and human frailties; characters’ choices might not be the stuff of fairytale romance yet at the same time they might be the right choices for them.
I don’t think I’ve seen Catherine Deneuve in a film before, and on the evidence of this movie she’s one of the most beautiful, elegant and glamorous stars to ever grace the screen, no mean feat considering that the classic cinema is not exactly lacking in iconic blond movie stars. A French technicolour heaven with gorgeous leads, exquisite score and an unexpected dash of bittersweet realism: you couldn’t ask for more.