It would seem that the American musical, especially its incarnation in the color spectacles of the 1950s, represents a moment in time that will never return. Entranced by this beautiful genre, the young French director Jacques Demy crafted an ornate tribute in 1964 called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In addition to directing the film, Demy wrote the screenplay and lyrics. The music is by Michel Legrand. One of the amazing aspects of this stylistic tour de force is that every line of dialogue is sung. In other words, it’s an operetta—not, however, a stage production transferred to the screen, but a work designed for film, and composed in wholly cinematic terms. Whatever you might think of the result, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
The tale is innocently romantic, without a tinge of irony. A teenage girl (Catherine Deneuve) is in love with an auto mechanic (Nino Catelnuovo) and they plan to marry, against the wishes of her mother. But he is drafted into the Algerian War, leaving the girl pregnant, and during his absence her loyalty is severely tested by the proposal of a charming and wealthy young suitor. The drama is as thin as could be if you look at it soberly. There is certainly no complexity of character on evidence here. But I don’t think that was the aim. The music is meant to carry the weight, and to carry our emotions along with it. Legrand’s score ranges from a sort of light cocktail-jazz perkiness to a lush 50s-style string orchestra ballad sound. Much of the dialogue is really a recitative, which of course tends not to stay in the memory. On the other hand, I defy you to keep the film’s grief- stricken main theme out of your head after seeing the movie.
Another marvelous thing about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is its look. Demy has all the houses and interiors painted in the brightest colors imaginable—as eye candy goes, this is nothing less than spectacular. He revels in the sheer artificiality of color. The photography and production design transfix the attention. Demy choreographs his characters’ movements with uncanny precision, and the camera glides through the sets with a fluidity and sense of ease that belies how difficult the timing must have been.
Critical opinion on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has been mixed. There’s no denying that the movie is something like a creamy confection, with little nourishment underneath the sweet musical and visual surface. But I don’t see how this is different from most musicals. The picture certainly has the courage of its convictions. It takes a formal conception and follows it to the very end, with a total belief in its own mission. Music can take the simplest dramatic elements that would never work normally, and transform them into something that touches the heart. I was touched by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and I don’t mind saying so.