Movie Journal – 3/29/2012

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)     4.5/5

Directed by Jacques Demy (Koch-Lorber Films)

In Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the esteemed New Wave director attempted something that had never been done before, or for that matter, has never quite been done since. He took a genre of the utmost fanaticism (the musical) and applied it to a story of realism. In Cherbourg, there are no lyrics, but rather, sung dialogue. In fact, every line is sung, and the film consists of very few minutes not complemented by Michel Legrand’s beautiful, instrumental compositions.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), has fallen in love Madeleine (Ellen Farner, who gives an incredible, breakthrough performance), the young daughter of an umbrella saleswoman (Anne Vernon). However, Guy is soon drafted into the Algerian War, and Madeleine must make the choice of whether to wait for Guy, or accept the hand of a wealthy jeweler, played by Marc Michel (his character having been the protagonist in Demy’s earlier film, Lola). This is a simple story (with some slightly predictable complications), but executed in a way that fully reconsiders our expectations of the musical, arguably the “happiest” genre.

The color in Cherbourg is also striking, having been recently restored by Demy’s wife (and fellow filmmaker), Agnes Varda. Demy’s cuts are very rare, prompting us to become involved in the characters’ emotional developments, rather than removing us from the ongoing action. However, Demy does make quite a few uses of montage, contrasting with the editing style throughout the film, and jumping through time in quite clever ways. This is where the film reaches an enticing contradiction – it tells a story that would likely occur in real life, yet shrouds it with color and style. This was no doubt Demy’s intent, examining contradictions within the entertainment of his era, and utilizing them to craft a near-masterpiece.

Cherbourg is a phenomenal film, but through no fault of its own, elements are surely lost in translation. French is a beautiful language, and sung dialogue sounds just as lovely as any lyrical composition. Yet when subtitles force us to translate the dialogue and simply interpret it as words, the mystique of Demy’s vision becomes slightly lost. Now that I have seen the film once (obviously using subtitles to understand the narrative), I do plan to watch it again, yet without the typed words that so often distracted me from Demy’s ambitious grandeur. Yet the emotional power remains. ThUmbrellas of Cherbourg is pure, cinematic opera, a fusion of sight and sound that has never been rivaled in its lucidity, or the simple ability to move an audience.

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