Criterion: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, JACQUES DEMY, 1964
After the opening credit sequence, the film begins in a garage, with Guy finishing up his work. There are not many images that are more masculine than a group of male auto mechanics fraternizing. Think of the crew from Drive a Crooked Road as they hoot and holler at the women passing by. This is a different auto shop, and the masculinity is quashed the moment they open their mouth. This is not a musical with regular actors occasionally breaking out into song. This is a movie where every line is sung, and not in the manner of a Mick Jagger or Tom Jones. The men sing with high pitched voices, in falsetto, in an instant shattering the stereotype of the masculine image.
While Demy was undoubtedly influenced by American musicals, what he created was truly original and groundbreaking. From the concept that every line of dialogue is sung to the sharp, loud and bright background colors that match the actor’s wardrobes, he broke through convention with a blowtorch.
Even now, some 50 years later, the world that Demy created takes some getting used to. I’ll admit that for me, giving it a second try with this Blu-Ray disc, it was not easy to get absorbed into this movie, but once there, I didn’t want to leave. The next 90 minutes fly by, as you become invested in the relationship between Guy and Geneviève, and whether it will survive his departure to the Algerian war.
Even though the movie’s presentation is the embodiment of consumptive lightness, the overall theme is rather complicated and not altogether pleasant. It is the choice between passion and practicality, something that most adults have to face at some point in their lives, and something that was the theme to what could be considered the film’s prequel, Lola. Roland daydreams and yearns for passion, but is ultimately scorned and chooses a responsible, practical life. Lola has plenty of temptations that might make immediate sense, including the potential coupling with Roland, but she waits for her original passion, and that choice pays off.
In The Umbrellas of Cherboug, Roland has changed entirely and is the face of practicality, whereas Geneviève is a shopkeeper’s daughter that is madly in love with someone from a lower class, Guy, who works in a garage of all places. This relationship could work, although it would not be without challenges, which is something that both parental figures realize and try to convey to the love-struck lead characters.
Because we have been trained by Hollywood that true love always survives despite all obstacles, the ending of Umbrellas is bittersweet and difficult to absorb.
Even though they both have their doubts, they have made their bed and have to sleep in it. Guy is at peace with the decision he has made, and that is exemplified by how he happily plays with his son in the film’s final shot. Geneviève’s appears to be consumed with regret, even if she’s the one driving the Mercedes, wearing expensive clothing, and looking as upper class as her recently passed mother wanted for her. Together, they would have made for a more passionate pairing, but they would have faced struggles in life that might have hurt them in the long run. Did they make the correct choice? That depends on your perspective. However, the choice was made and time has passed, so they have to live with it.
Some people have problems with the ending, but I think it is one of the film’s strengths. This is a movie about love, sure, and you become invested in the two main characters, but it is also about life and the choices we make.
Movie Rating: 8/10
This disc is full of extras, making it appropriately the most loaded yet in the box-set.
The Once Upon a Time documentary was fixating, nearly as good as the movie itself. It has many archived interviews with Demy, Legrand, Varda, Deneuve, and it peels away the layers that went on behind the scenes. As some would expect, the voices were not the actor’s, but they did sing as they acted in order to get the affectations correctly (and apparently they all sang awfully). I thought it was fascinating how tough the movie was to sell to distributes, seeing how successful and iconic it is in hindsight. Yet since it broke boundaries, I can see why people were reluctant.
There is a short interview with Demy and Legrand for French TV. These pieces are always of interest to me because the French media can ask direct, difficult questions. I thought the questions they posed to Legrand about how he compares with Bach and Beethoven, and whether those classical composers would have made film scores was pointed, but a very good question. They were basically asking whether he had compromised his own integrity in order to create film music. I thought he handled the questions with aplomb, and rightfully did not elevate his own talent to the world’s best composers ever.
Film Scholar Rodney Hill gives a 20+ minute interview that I thought worked effectively well. He gives a bit of a retrospective and contextual basis for Umbrellas, and makes the thematic connection with Lola. He talks about many of the difficult realities with the movie, and how it was a product of the Algerian war, which had just ended when the film was released and was fresh on the minds of the masses of people who saw the film.
Just like the previous two discs, there was a short piece on the restoration. They repeated some points from the previous two, but I liked how they showed the RGB print composition and color correction. In some ways, they have used controversial Turner-like methods to adjust the color, but they are doing so to get as close to Demy’s artistic vision as possible.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
This is the disc that makes buying the box-set worth it. Umbrellas is a landmark in French and World cinema, and Criterion has held up to their reputation of putting everything they can into their biggest and best releases.