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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

by Glenn Erickson Apr 14, 2017

Jacques Demy’s international breakthrough musical gives us Catherine Deneuve and wall-to-wall Michel Legrand pop-jazz — it’s a different animal than La La Land but they’re being compared anyway. The story of a romance without a happily-ever-after is doggedly naturalistic, despite visuals as bright and buoyant as an old MGM show.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Criterion Collection 716
1964 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 92 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Les parapluies de Cherbourg / Street Date April 11, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, Jean Champion.
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Production design:Bernard Evein
Film Editors: Anne-Marie Cotret, Monique Teisseire
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Produced by Mag Bodard
Written and Directed by
Jacques Demy


What with all the hubbub about last year’s Oscar favorite La La Land, I wonder if Hollywood will be trotting out more retro-nostalgia, ‘let’s put on a show’ musical fantasy fare. Film bookers took the cue right away, reaching back to MGM greats and also to the films that critics thought La La Land borrowed the most from, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Being an everybody-sing, everybody-dance extravaganza, the second picture is a better match, though neither film asks La La’s musical drama question: “Is love incompatible with show-biz success?”


Easily Demy’s most famous and beloved picture, 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg) is really a uniquely stylized operetta, that nevertheless takes place in a naturalistic setting. The story is a bittersweet tragedy, or perhaps just a bittersweet acknowledgement that love, romance and finding happiness are not things anyone should take for granted.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the movie that put Demy on the map. In America it has been rediscovered by succeeding generations of French language students, in the same way that The Red Shoes inspires budding ballerinas. French directors admire American musicals but only Demy has found success adapting the highly artificial genre to his own temperament. A fully- sung jazz operetta, the movie’s soundtrack had to be finessed and recorded before filming took place, so that Demy’s non-singing actors could lip-synch to the lyrics. Michel Legrand’s music is nothing less than enchanting, and his main romantic tune is still an instantly recognized standard. Adding to the film’s legend is its ‘discovery’ of Catherine Deneuve, one of the most enduring of French stars.


For his first film in color Demy adopts an extravagant visual style, even though most of the film was made in a realistic setting, the port of Cherbourg. Just as in an MGM musical, bright primary colors are everywhere and costumes and props are carefully matched to the sets. Yet the story Demy tells is not an escapist fantasy. Umbrella shop girl Geneviève and mechanic Guy (Catherine Deneuve & Nino Castelnuovo) fall madly in love but are forced to separate when he’s called up for military duty in Algeria. When she becomes pregnant and Guy’s letters stop coming, Geneviève’s practical mother (Anne Vernon) insists that she accept a marriage proposal from a wealthy diamond merchant, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). An undefeatable Great Love seems doomed to tragedy, as Geneviève realizes that she’s just another victim in love’s oldest story.

The film surprised audiences everywhere. It’s almost a litmus test for movie lovers — if the very idea of musical where people sing all the dialogue drives you up the wall, you might want to stay away. But the show’s seductive music routinely wins over musical-phobes, just the same. With the entire movie is sung to music, there are no awkward transitions between dialogue scenes and musical numbers. As in West Side Story we don’t mind hearing people sing instead of talk in completely realistic backgrounds. Demy and Legrand first hit us with this theatrical notion during a mechanics’ shift change in the auto repair garage. Unlike West Side Story the romantic fantasy flows, without stylistic breaks for ordinary scenes.


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg puts some audiences through an emotional wringer, reaching for and achieving effects that were out of fashion in the ‘cool’ year of 1964. The sentiments are universal in appeal. For young people, two years of separation might as well be an eternity. The farewell at a rainy train depot fully conveys the desire to die rather than part. But Geneviève and Guy have already succumbed to their passion in a scene of considerable visual power, their last night before Guy must leave. It uses pure cinema to express the unstoppable magnetism of sex, when the right moment has arrived. The inevitability of it all becomes clear when they drift in the direction of Guy’s house, without walking, as if being drawn by an outside force. The lovers know where they’ll end up, and the film simply cuts to static images of the path to Guy’s bedroom. (large image, top )   By enforcing a stylized, artificial musical genre logic, Demy brings back the highly emotional language of silent film.

The show uses so much color that we wonder how any was left over for the other color films of 1964. The Umbrella shop and mother’s apartment sometimes seem too much for the eyes, with purple and pink wallpaper that over-stimulates the retinas. Although Catherine Deneuve reportedly balked at playing Geneviève as such a wide-eyed innocent, and resisted the hairstyle and image Demy chose for her, this remains her most memorable role; her stunning looks and natural charm outdo that of Grace Kelly. The bright colors subside somewhat in the later chapters, when reality forces Geneviève to betray her love. We see her retreat into the semi-glacial emotional remove that became Deneuve’s standard image.


The movie is about young love, of course, but makes it seem like torture. Geneviève may be inexperienced and selfish, but seems an innocent victim of bourgeois guilt, national politics, marital conventions and a demanding mother. We can’t help but wonder if life would have worked out between Geneviève and Guy – we never find out if she’d be happy as the wife of a mechanic. Those who have weathered similar ‘lost loves’ will be deeply affected by the life-consequences at stake for these two. With the big publicity push given Ms. Deneuve, one could barely find an image of Guy’s other love interest, Madeleine (Ellen Farner). Yet Madeleine is equally deserving of happiness. Sensible and appreciative, she’s willing to commit herself to Guy, even though she’s seen him at his worst. In every romantic triangle, somebody has to suffer, and I imagine that many people fall asleep at night thinking about what their lives might have been with somebody else’s head on the pillow beside them. It’s a glossy musical, but Demy expresses well this universal ‘big drama in ordinary life.’

It’s at this point that Umbrellas takes the leap into Jacques Demy’s world of ‘Romantic Relativity,’ ported over from his previous multi-character romantic epic Lola. Demy’s notion is that each of us thinks our romantic troubles are unique, when we’re just repeating the same patterns of previous generations: girls fall in love with men that abandon them, mothers try to resolve their romantic problems through their daughters, unwanted pregnancies force unwanted marriages. Geneviève is destroyed by Guy’s departure as if experiencing a tragedy nobody else ever had to suffer. When his letters stop coming she falls apart. The suave diamond merchant Roland Cassard sees her and wastes no time maneuvering himself into a proposal, as if conducting a smooth business negotiation.


Back in 1964 few American viewers realized that Roland Cassard is the same exact character from Jacques Demy’s Lola, played by the same actor, Marc Michel. Roland’s music cue from the previous film returns as well, cementing the continuity between the films. The Romantic Relativity of Lola makes Umbrellas a continuation of the Roland Cassard story. Having lost the love of his life, Roland found his calling in the diamond trade and has made his fortune. He’s now shopping for a wife and family on his own terms, from a position of power. He’s sincere but cool, and by no means the same broken-hearted man who moped around Nantes. As Roland tells Geneviève’s mother about Lola, Umbrellas achieves a Memory Miracle. We are suddenly transported back to the main site of romantic meetings in the first movie, an ornate shopping arcade. This time it’s in color. Roland wants a family, but we know that he left his heart back with his lost Lola. What will be left for Geneviève?

Years pass, and the dates advance on Demy’s transitional images of rainy Cherbourg. We dread what will happen when Geneviève and Guy meet again. A simple scene at Guy’s garage at Christmas becomes a complicated puzzle of happiness and regret, of betrayal and lost possibilities. Both lovers have established new lives, without having resolved their differences or even understanding what the other went through. The deepest tragedy is that a father and daughter will never know one another. Saying that, ‘It all worked out for the best’ is an inadequate response. When love is involved, human relationships are never simple. Did Geneviève return to Cherbourg subconsciously hoping to run into Guy? To find him single? Umbrellas of Cherbourg is ruthlessly honest about what happens to desperate lovers in real life.


I don’t see the point in comparing Umbrellas to La La Land. The newer picture is a cute bon-bon, but despite winning performances its big emotions seem superficial at best. It doesn’t didn’t deserve the critical backlash from earlier in the year, but for me its magic was tentative, and evaporated as soon as the house lights came up. Half a century later, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg strikes me as an honest and insightful look at the cruel fortunes of ordinary romance. I’d also call it an instructive fairy tale – it’s a movie that every vulnerable teenager with romantic ideas ought to see.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg should make a lot of fans happy, as some of the DVDs from years past have suffered major speed, color and framing issues. In 2014 Criterion included the marvelous 2K digital restoration done by Agnès Varda, in its six-disc The Essential Jacques Demy, a sparkling box set with a staggering retail price. This is the exact same transfer, with the exact same extras, smartly reissued as a solo offering, along with The Young Girls of Rochefort. If you can find the multi-disc set at a good price, I still recommend it, as the other films Lola, Bay of Angels, Rochefort and Donkey Skin are all superb.

Criterion carries over the same extras and even package design from the previous release, with a full making-of docu and interview items from when the picture was new, and in retrospect. It’s really a case of artistic collaboration between Jacques Demy and his composer Michel Legrand, who expands on the melancholy music themes of Lola. Legrand’s main romantic song was covered by most every pop singer on the planet and is still a standard item. Music critics sometimes dismiss it in much the same way they slammed Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago. I’ve also heard Umbrellas disparaged through unfair comparisons with Rouben Mamoulian’s revolutionary Love Me Tonight, which invented amazing ways to interweave operetta and music hall songs with filmic conventions. That doesn’t diminish Demy and Legrand’s achievement one bit.


As I said, Criterion is simultaneously releasing a standalone Blu of Demy’s follow-up musical The Young Girls of Rochefort. The 1967 film is a much bigger affair on a wide ‘scope canvas, with a large cast that dances as well as sings – almost constantly. Americans Gene Kelly and George Chakiris are in the mix, while Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, carry many of the main songs and dance routines. Some prefer this technically more ambitious, sprawling musical to Umbrellas, possibly because it is more upbeat. The dozen or so mismatched lovers criss-cross paths in Rochefort, as Marc Michel and Anouk Aimée had crossed Nantes in Lola. Some of the dancing does begin to get repetitive after awhile. The Young Girls of Rochefort is title that critics ought to reference when explaining the charm of La La Land. Neither Deneuve nor Dorléac can sing or dance particularly well, and just like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, they compensate with charm, poise and personality. The difference may be that that French actresses come off as genuine stars, with the spark of glamour that, in old-fashioned musical terms, allows them fair entry into a stylized musical fantasy world. Stone and Gosling play against that, trying to be both glamorous and down-to-earth natural at the same time.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 2008 docu Once Upon a Time . . . ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg;’ Interview from 2014 with film scholar Rodney Hill; French TV interview from 1964 with Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand; Audio interviews with Catherine Deneuve and Legrand at the National Film Theatre in London; Restoration demonstration, trailer, insert essay by critic Jim Ridley.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 13, 2017
(5389umbr)CINESAgnès VardaANT

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Here’s Bob Weide on Demy’s melancholy musical:

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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