What Color Is Your Parapluie?

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

For weeks now, my boss has been making faces at me every time I mention this story about the restoration of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (or Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as the 1964 French film is known in its homeland). These faces he makes are not expressions of delight. Quite the opposite. Yet I know why he winces. I once felt the same way. Although over time, I've come to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a thoroughly original piece of filmmaking and a masterful celebration of the artifice of making movies, I know I once regarded Umbrellas as woefully contrived and sentimental fluff. I, too, used to wrinkle my nose in disgust. But I no longer sing that old dismissive tune. And now that this spectacularly restored print is in limited circulation throughout America, its jaded naysayers owe it the courtesy of a reassessment, and fresh newcomers deserve an introduction.

In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, every word of dialogue is sung. The film's lyrics (translated in subtitles) by writer-director Jacques Demy were beautifully scored and conducted by the now-famous composer Michel Legrand, whose international reputation was sealed on the basis of this film. In the opening scene, a garage mechanic sings his estimate of an engine and, with that, the movie's bold conceit is off and running. Though it uses the structure of opera, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, at heart, a Hollywood musical. The sung dialogue is conversational and fluid, devoid of any operatic staginess and spotlighted solo work. It's pop opera, if you will, borrowing from opera and movie musicals to create something thoroughly modern and bewitching. And though you expect the contrivance to fail at any moment, the movie quells all such skepticism with its perfect balance of stylistic artifice and emotional naturalism.

The other startling aspect of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is its vibrant and ebullient use of color and decor. Colors are saturated to their richest and most eye-captivating hues... and then some; backdrops and sets are bathed in unearthly colors that stimulate the senses but defy all logic. Green and purple -- usually paired together -- are the movie's most common background colors, so much so that a solid red is perceived by the eye as a soothing relief. Even the plentiful pastels are bold. Demy's visual riches encompass patterns and textures: wallpaper is not only colorful but flocked, clothing is not only vivid but sensuous, umbrellas are not only utilitarian but ornamental. Never for a second does the movie let you forget that you are in a fabricated and artificial movie universe.

Although Jacques Demy began making films in 1960 at the same time as the titans of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, et al.), Demy's name is only loosely associated with these figures. Amongst other things, the New Wave films are recognized for their tight budgets and free-ranging location work. Though these filmmakers all admired the American cinema and its studio product, each tried to bend Hollywood's structures to accommodate his own narrative needs. Demy may have been the only one amongst them who wanted (or at least admitted his desire) to make a big-budget, Hollywood-style musical. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as close as he ever came to fulfilling that dream. Other films of note include his first film Lola (1960), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Model Shop (1969), and Donkey Skin (1970). The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is probably his most perfectly realized work, and won the prestigious Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film restoration has meant that, for the first time in a couple of decades, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg can be seen in colors that closely resemble its original palette. Shot in Eastmancolor, a comparatively cheap film stock, Demy knew that the release prints would fade in a matter of a few years and the colors would gradually merge into that distinctive reddish-pink Eastmancolor haze. Thus, before any release prints were struck, Demy had the lab make three black-and-white color-selected prints from which new color internegatives might later be struck. Although Demy died in 1990, the restoration was supervised by his widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda, and Legrand, who had to completely remix (and sometimes wholly reconstruct) the sound. The sound and picture quality of the restored print far surpasses that of any print or video version in circulation for at least the last couple of decades.

One thing that hasn't changed much with the passage of time is the visage of Catherine Deneuve, who stars here in one of her first screen roles as Genevieve, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's lovestruck teen. One of her very first film roles, Deneuve was only 20 years old when she made Umbrellas. She's seen here as a lissome ingenue, full of spunk and fire -- a far stretch from the ice princess persona that would soon become her screen identity. We can see in Umbrellas that classic face, a face that has not aged but, instead, matured.

In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve plays the 16-year-old Genevieve, who is in the throes of experiencing her first love. She lives in the rainy harbor town of Cherbourg with her mother (Anne Vernon), who owns the ever-colorful umbrella shop called "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg." Genevieve and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are starry-eyed lovers who coo their proclamations of eternal love, and believe every word they sing. Then Guy receives his draft notice and departs for his two-year military stint (made all the more dangerous because of France's then-involvement in the Algerian war). After Guy's departure, which is followed by his infrequent letters, Genevieve learns she is pregnant. Deciding what to do and then facing the consequences of that decision form the rest of the movie's plot line.

The movie, easily, could have dipped into mawkish romanticism. Remarkably, it maintains a cool and reasonable attitude toward its characters, which is something I did not remember from my initial viewing years ago. (I wonder if viewers have an unconscious tendency to lump together The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with that other French romance powerhouse of the era, A Man and a Woman -- a movie which can legitimately be associated with mawkish romanticism.) Despite its candy-colored sheen, Demy's pop opera has a hard-nugget core. It knows enough to take young love with a grain of salt, even if the lovers are oblivious to any wisdom but their own. Some very hard and unexpected decisions are made by characters who we have come to regard as blind fools for love. Gloomy shadows of things like the war in Algeria, bankruptcy, and love betrayed creep into the frilly grace notes of the dialogue. By the time of the film's closing moments, when a gas station attendant inquires whether Genevieve wants her car filled with "super" or "regular," we know that the question has become a metaphor for her life.

"People only die of love in the movies," says one of Umbrella's hard-nosed characters. By equal measure, it would seem that "living happily ever after" is also a conceptual byproduct of the movies. For Demy, reality is not as tidy and pat as the movies make it out to be. Thus, as he's busy creating a patently artificial movie universe with one hand, he's using the other to shape a realistic and truthful emotional core. With the deft skills of a magician, Demy allows the movie's elaborate formal structure and decorative stimuli to serve as convenient trompe l'oeils that distract the viewer from worrying too much about the less attractive emotional realities that lurk below his glossy surfaces. Bitter tonics are embedded in the cotton candy so that they pass smoothly and leave little outward trace. What we remember is the rush of the cotton candy; the long-term effects of the tonic are systemic and more subtle.

Thus, what I once regarded as mind fluff I've now come to see as an imaginative and radical artistic structure. Discordant notes are swept along by beautiful melodies. Distasteful truths are made palatable by blending them into the visible feast. And decorative umbrellas can offer shelter from the storm. Offering the best of both worlds, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg appears like an impossible dream, like a nutritious trip to the candy store. Well, only in the movies.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg begins a two-week run at UT's Hogg Auditorium beginning Friday, July 19-Thursday, August 1. Shows run daily every evening except Mondays; consult listings for daily show times or call 475-6666 for recorded info.

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