The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a French musical from 1964 that takes a fairly mundane story and elevates it massively with its incredible style. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it is one of the most colorful movies I have ever seen. A stark contrast from the (mostly) black and white of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, this film, directed by her husband Jacques Demy, makes every single frame vibrant beyond reason. Similarly, the filmmakers made the audacious choice to have the story be entirely sung-through while keeping lyrics as realistic dialogue. So people sing things like what a mechanic did to fix a car. By dialing everything but the story up to 11, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows that the difference between everyday events and drama is just your point of view.
It’s November 1957 in the coastal town of Chergourg in Normandy, France. Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and her mother (Anne Vernon) operate an umbrella boutique that is struggling… probably because they only sell umbrellas. Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo) is a mechanic who lives with his sickly Aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey) and her caretaker Madeleine (Ellen Farner). Geneviève and Guy are madly in love and make plans to get married and have a kid one day, despite Madame Emery’s disapproval. However, those plans are put on hold as Criterion Month’s favorite conflict, the Algerian War, breaks out and Guy is drafted to serve for two years. Despite that, the couple believe their love can endure and have every intention to pick up where they left off when Guy gets back.
Meanwhile, the umbrella shop’s financial problem have gotten so bad that Madame Emery decides to sell jewelry to help make ends meet. She and Geneviève go to the local jeweler, who can’t afford to buy the madame’s necklace. Luckily for them, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a wealthy Parisian jeweler, is visiting at that time and takes an immediate liking to Geneviève. He offers to buy the necklace but doesn’t have the cash on him right at that moment. So he visits the shop the next day to finish the transaction and, now that his foot is in the door, starts trying his best to court Geneviève. The madame loves this arrangement, but Geneviève is ambivalent. When pressed, Geneviève reveals to her mother that she is pregnant with Guy’s child but isn’t sure about their relationship, given that Guy has sent so few letters. Life has put her at a crossroads and she doesn’t know what to do: wait for Guy or start a family with Roland? What would you do?
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was composed by Michel Legrand, who also did the music to Cléo from 5 to 7. And, honestly, for the most part it didn’t work for me. The way the characters sing mundane dialogue is so weird to me. I’m all for heightened reality, but this isn’t quite that. As a form, sometimes it’s really funny, like when Guy’s sickly old aunt is singing on her deathbed, but it never really clicked for me the way my favorite musicals do. It’s almost like is somehow sapped the fun out of it being a musical. Which is just about the most French thing ever.
But I have to reiterate that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is gorgeous. The version I watched was a major labor of love that took decades to make. You see, the film was shot on Eastman negative stock, which rapidly faded. Knowing this would be the case, and wanting to preserve the rich colors, Jacques Demy had the yellow, cyan, and magenta masters made on black and white film. Around the time of his death, his widow, Agnès Varda, started a project to create a new negative from those three masters, which she accomplished in 2004. There’s a great little documentary about in on the Criterion disc as well as on Criterion Channel. Stories like that are part of what makes Criterion so great!