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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 film by Jacques Demy, is a prime example of art for art's sake. It's a charming, extremely Gallic slice of chiffon pie that tells a very simple story in a unique way: it's all sung.

But it's not an opera, at least not in the way we think of opera. The music is light, not even as heavy as Gilbert and Sullivan. The very recognizable theme, which I've heard many times but had no idea was from this film, was composed by Michel Legrand, one of the great movie music figures of the last half century.

The film is also notable for its brash use of color, particularly reds and pinks and blues. And, I might add, for the appearance of a very young Catherine Deneuve, one of the great beauties of cinema.

The film tells the story of her romance with a simple auto mechanic, Nino Castelnuovo. She is the daughter of the proprietress of an umbrella shop, which gives the film its title (Cherbourg is a seaport that is probably most notable for all the war that has gone on trying to capture and keep it). Deneuve's mother, Anne Vernon, doesn't approve of the relationship. Castelnuovo gets drafted into the service, and is shipped off to Algeria. But before he leaves the couple share one night of passion and she gets pregnant.

Vernon pushes a suave diamond merchant, Marc Michel, on Deneuve, but she resists. But when Michel agrees to raise the child as his own, she finally agrees to marry him, and leaves town. Castelnuovo comes back, wounded, and hears the crushing news. He becomes something of a basket case, but falls in love with his aunt's caretaker. The two main characters, now married to other people and with a child, have a serendipitous meeting at a gas station as the film ends.

There's nothing wrong with this film, and some parts are quite brilliant, especially the photography by Jean Rabler. But it's rather flimsy and not very moving. You can see the star power of Deneuve, though, she outshines her co-star by quite a bit. I assume all the actors were using their own singing voices (there's no info I can find that counters that) so in that sense it's a strong cast.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an interesting curiosity, but not a particularly great film.

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