The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a life-enhancing 60s sensation, is about to enrapture a new generation of filmgoers
Voguish director Damien Chazelles pick for the greatest movie ever made isnt his masterwork La La Land, or even Citizen Kane. Its The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle claims to have watched this New Wave classic more than 200 times, and regards his own not-quite-Oscar-winning 2016 musical as a crypto-remake of Jacques Demys entirely sung-through phenomenon.
It wasnt love at first sight. Initially, Demys film, with its strange operatic style, threw me for a loop, says Chazelle. On its debut in 1964, it provoked a similarly perplexed response. Yet it went on to win the Palme dOr and five Oscar nominations; it pulled in more than a million filmgoers in France alone, and became an enduring obsession for those, like Chazelle, who have fallen under its spell.
Its story is artlessly simple. A teenage shopgirl falls in love with a garage mechanic and they swear eternal fealty. But, after hes called up to fight in Algeria, his letters soon dry up. His sweetheart finds hes left her pregnant, so under parental pressure she marries an older, well-heeled suitor. When her earlier swain returns from the war, he goes on a regretful bender, but then he, too, settles for someone else. Thats it.
Yet such has been the films hold that its fading celluloid has been subjected to a painstaking digital restoration. Realising that his Eastman stock would eventually degrade, Demy made three colour separation masters from the original negative. Their survival has enabled his original hues to be precisely recreated. His mono sound mix has been deepened with the help of the original album of the films music.
In December, the result will hit UK arthouse screens from Exeter to Dundee. A new generation of filmgoers can expect to be enthralled. What, though, is the secret of this films abiding appeal?
At first sight, it seems to channel the gaiety of Vincente Minnellis classic MGM musicals. The drab, war-scarred Channel port of Cherbourg is drenched in saturated primary colours. Interiors feature enchanting pastel, candy-striped rooms set off by the simple but exquisite clothes and hairstyles of their humble occupants. Bustling and vigorous street scenes are intricately choreographed. Yet this turns out to be no escapist fairyland. The dazzling cinematography brings home the harsh reality of everyday life in a dull, postwar provincial town at least as starkly as the same eras kitchen-sink British films.
The impossible beauty of the stars must have left Hollywood open-mouthed with envy. Catherine Deneuve, then 21, plays Genevive, a 16-year-old umbrella shopkeepers daughter, in the role that made her name. Her co-star, Nino Castelnuovo, playing Guy the mechanic, was destined for a future of TV bit parts, but here hes hardly less gorgeous than she is. Like their surroundings, however, both are as grittily real as they are visually blessed.
Michel Legrands lyrical, sweeping score secured one of the films Oscar nods, but it provides none of a traditional musicals dancing choruses or showcase numbers for the leads. Instead, recitative conveys everything from an inquiry about the price of an umbrella to a declaration of love through the same unremitting threnody, in a continuous paean to the delightfulness of human experience, whether that be happy, sad or merely humdrum. And its this peculiar device that establishes the films game plan.
Unlike so many feelgood favourites, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg doesnt proclaim that love conquers all, that virtue will be rewarded or that money doesnt matter to the pure of heart. On the contrary, it faces up to lifes less inspiriting realities and manages to invest them with the transcendence normally reserved for our generally scarce moments of rapture.
When Genevive declares that she cant live without Guy, her mama tells her: People only die of love in the movies. Mamas proved right. It turns out to be one of Genevives tribulations that she can indeed live without her supposedly indispensable soul mate. The films theme song, (in English) I Will Wait for You, has been movingly covered many times. However, its message is wryly ironic. Genevive sings the song, and means it at the time, but fails to stay true to its pledge.
Not that were expected to think she should have. Genevives life choice may not be the stuff of fairytales, but it may have been right for her and her daughter. Her comfortably bourgeois end state isnt the best she might have achieved; nor is it the worst. Her brief spell of unqualified bliss may be behind her, but something of its magic persists nonetheless.
Guy ends up owning a garage and married with a son of his own. In a climactic, snowbound scene, the lovers meet again by chance, years after their separation. Genevive invites Guy to meet his daughter. He declines. Rightly, were asked to believe. And its this unbearable non-encounter that is the films most bewitching moment.
La La Land sort of gets some of this. Its lovers also sacrifice romance for less ambrosial temptations. They, too, must face the bittersweet outcome of the calls theyve made. Yet Chazelles verdict on the two films relative merits is hard to gainsay. Its not just that Tinseltown offers a less elemental setting than guileless Cherbourg. Or that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling cant quite match Deneuve and Castelnuovo in either looks, chemistry or grace. Its that La La Land remains, as its name implies, a frothy fantasy; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a life-enhancing tragedy.
Yet its a tragedy devoid of the greed, courage, sacrifice, betrayal or violence whose glamour mitigates calamity in more grandiose narratives. It boasts neither heroes nor villains. Instead, it confronts quotidian woes that evoke less awe than their more exalted counterparts but affect us more frequently and ultimately more profoundly. Its minor-key topics are disappointment, compromise and loss. Delicately, it extracts their sting and unites them with the joys life also offers.
The films unforgettable title sequence features a Google Earth-style overhead view of rain pouring on to the cobbles of Cherbourg. Beneath the deluge, burghers go about their affairs under the efficient protection of brightly coloured umbrellas. Into all lives rain must fall, but it can be deflected by art. That is the invaluable function that Demys masterpiece performs.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is released in the UK on 6 December
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