If you read my Meet the Staff piece, you saw La La Land atop my (arbitrary) list of favorite films. Director Damien Chazelle cites The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as one of the greatest influences on his film, which was how I was exposed to Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical.
It’s a nonstop musical with no real structured numbers. I wasn’t aware of this, but once I got past the initial awkwardness and began to appreciate the imperfections in the way characters deliver their lines, it really became enjoyable. There’s a beautiful sort of ebb and flow to the dialogue, and the singing creates a fairy-tale effect that works to heighten our affinity for this romance that, in a sense, we know nothing about.
But if you notice the way Guy caresses Genevieve, or the pining look in her eyes after his departure, you know everything you need to. We understand this romance through its subtleties. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg maintains that we don’t need to know who they are or how they met because none of that matters. It presents us with two people so convincingly and unabashedly in love; what more do we need? We find ourselves backing this relationship from the start, against the impending forces that seek to destroy it.
Both of the performances at the center of this film are great, but Catherine Deneuve especially stands out as Genevieve. Without Guy, we watch her deteriorate right in front of our eyes, and Deneuve embodies that so well.
The music is an absolute gut-punch, and the ever-present theme is truly haunting. I could physically feel my insides being hollowed out. Composer Michel Legrand did his part to make this thing ooze with melancholy.
The melodrama here is what’s really special, and Demy pulls no punches when it comes to squeezing all the emotion he can out of this thing. We linger with Guy and Genevieve through their most painful moments, and it’s devastating. And there’s something to be said for films that aim directly at our hearts and wear their emotional manipulation on their sleeve. If you’re one of those people who are against movies being “manipulative,” you should probably steer clear of this movie. But I’m pretty sure you’re being silly by doing that, and I’m very sure you’re depriving yourself of a lot of great films, including Umbrellas. To prevent yourself from being swept up in a film is fundamentally to deny yourself the pleasure of cinema. Why do we watch movies if not to be moved?
Perhaps the one smidge of optimism extended to us is the lesson to hold on to the person you love through it all because if you manage to weather the storm, it will be worth it. Let The Umbrellas of Cherbourg serve as a cautionary tale; an enchanting story that makes us feel the weight of the consequences of letting romanticism slip away from us.