The movie musical is among the most-maligned genres of filmmaking.
The movie musical is among the most-maligned genres of filmmaking. There is something about characters breaking out into song that strips away the agreement viewers have with a movie. But why? Why can we believe flying dragons, unstoppable serial killers and murderous clowns, but still have issues with singing and dancing? Even some of the more audacious and best-received musicals of this century, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) have their detractors.
A lot of the dislike probably comes from tradition. Many Hollywood musicals are bloated affairs, three-hour extravaganzas stuffed with song and dance but not much else of substance. Even some of the most-acclaimed musical films, such as West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof haven’t aged well and sometimes even feel strident at times. Two of the best-loved musicals of all time—The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins—get a pass mainly because they are aimed towards a younger audience. Kids can deal with singing lions and flying nannies, but in most other milieus the movie musical flounders. Sure, directors from Woody Allen to Tim Burton have taken a stab at the genre, but only recently had a movie such as La La Land garnered a lot of love, and even that one is debatable.
Then what of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s bittersweet 1964 valentine to the fleeting nature of love? The film is not a musical where songs are peppered throughout; all of its dialogue is sung. There are no pre-made singles designed to act as a subsidiary money-making scheme a la “Let it Go.” The movie is also entirely in French.
There is an alchemy at work here, one that demonstrates Demy’s genius as a director. Let’s talk about surfaces, first. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg pops from the screen with its luminous color palette. It also features an incandescent Catherine Deneuve at 20, ready to burst from the screen and steal the hearts of viewers from all over the world. It’s no surprise that Umbrellas of Cherbourg made the actress into a star. Yet, it’s what resides under the surface that makes the film so effective. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg affixes its gaze on the fairy-tale notion that true love will conquer all, but instead it offers a sobering view on broken hearts and how we survive such ordeals and become stronger.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is broken into three distinct sections. In the first, subtitled “The Departure,” it’s late 1957 and we meet Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic, as he gets off work eager to meet up with his girlfriend, Geneviève (Deneuve). There is something out of place and time about mechanics talking about going to the opera or out dancing after work, but it’s France and it’s the ‘50s. Geneviève works for her mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), a single woman who owns a shop that sells umbrellas. We quickly learn that all is not financially well for Geneviève and her mother. They receive a letter claiming they will soon lose the shop if a large debt isn’t paid off. Meanwhile, Madame Emery bemoans Geneviève’s choice in men. Why couldn’t she choose someone with better prospects, such as the jeweler Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). This is frank talk in a genre that almost always puts affairs of the heart over monetary concerns. Yet, as the film progresses, we learn that Geneviève’s mother may actually be right after all.
Soon, Guy is called up for Army duty and will be sent to fight in Algeria. He and Geneviève sleep together, and after he is gone, she learns that she is pregnant. In the second section—titled “The Absence”—things are not going well. Guy’s letters are infrequent and the shop is about to go under. Roland begins to pay Geneviève visits, and with Guy away, she slowly realizes her mother has a point. Marry Roland and become comfortable or hold out for a man who may never return.
In a lesser film, Geneviève would be excoriated for making such a choice. According to the late critic Jim Ridley, “What is most striking is that Demy, the generous humanist, sees no reason to demonize Geneviève for her choice, nor to make Roland an ogre.” Think about Moulin Rouge! for a moment. Of course it makes more sense for Nicole Kidman’s consumptive courtesan to pick the wealthy duke over Ewan McGregor’s destitute, Bohemian writer. However, the duke is an awful human being, the very antithesis of true love. Here, the choice is easier for Geneviève since Roland is a compassionate individual.
So what happens when Guy inevitably returns? In the final section, “The Return,” Guy comes back to Cherbourg wounded and sad. Geneviève and Roland have moved to Paris. The shop has closed. Guy quarrels with his boss at the garage and resigns. After finding solace in alcohol and a prostitute, Guy reconnects with Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the young woman who looked after his dying aunt. They marry and have a son.
It’s the inevitable reunion between Guy and Geneviève that makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg so indelible. It’s Christmas 1963, six years after the film began. Guy now runs his own gas station. Madeleine and their son step out just as Geneviève pulls up with her daughter. The old lovers speak briefly. Geneviève asks Guy if he wants to meet his daughter and he refuses. They realize they no longer have a place in each other’s lives. Then, Geneviève drives away. When Guy’s family returns, he gleefully gets into a snowball fight with his son.
Ridley asks, “Is this the saddest happy ending in all of movies, or the happiest sad ending?” Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a litmus test in many ways. Hopeless romantics would likely never forgive Geneviève for casting Guy away. One with a more sobering view will recognize that, while the characters are no longer together, both are happy and comfortable. Such a conundrum is endlessly debatable, a question that lingers long after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ends. These sorts of discussions mark the best of what cinema has to offer, even if all the dialogue is sung.