From the start, day 1 of the TCMFF was the one I was most excited about. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s beautiful Technicolor tribute to the Hollywood musical, is one of my all-time favorite films–one whose complete score I have downloaded in my iTunes. As all dialogue is sung, I have nearly memorized the complete film, and frequently find myself humming the recitatives as I go about my everyday life. However, I had never seen it on the big screen. This was an experience I knew I had to have.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is Jacques Demy’s second film in his “romantic trilogy,” after his groundbreaking feature debut Lola in 1961. Those two films (plus the final installment of the trilogy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967) share many stylistic elements and influences, including the use of a a lush visual scene and, in the case of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, a bright and vibrant Technicolor that has since become Demy’s signature. One of the main characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the diamond dealer Roland Cassard, is a character who had appeared earlier in Lola–and he recounts the plot in one of his recitative passages about his life. This contributes to a sense of linearity and continuity in Demy’s films that gives them a further 3-dimensional, lifelike quality.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows the story of 17-year-old Geneviève, who adores her 20-year-old boyfriend, Guy, and the two plan to get married. But Guy is drafted into the Algerian War before they can marry, and after he leaves, Geneviève has found herself pregnant with his child. Her mother, who runs an umbrella shop called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is concerned about how society will view her daughter and grandchild. She encourages Geneviève to marry Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond dealer who helped the two out of a financial bind and has taken an interest in Geneviève. Guy has stopped writing frequently, and Geneviève’s mother convinces her that she’s better off marrying Cassard, who wants to raise the child as his own. They marry, and Geneviève becomes a wealthy woman with a husband to help raise her child. But shortly thereafter, Guy comes back to Cherbourg to find her gone. From there on, it becomes the story of Guy–unable to forget Geneviève, he resorts to quitting his job and becoming an alcoholic, until he realizes that Madeleine, the caretaker of his elderly godmother, has always loved him. They begin to spend time together, and Guy’s life becomes meaningful again. They marry, and the final part of the movie shows their life together with their young son at the gas station they own. One day, Geneviève comes back to Cherbourg, and accidentally runs into Guy at his gas station. She has her daughter with her, and asks Guy if he would like to see her. Guy silently shakes his head no. Geneviève bids him goodbye and leaves, presumably for good.
It is a story that tugs on the heartstrings, and yet is relatable in so many ways. It shows life how it really is, with all its highs and lows, without the guarantee of a happy ending. Demy, along with his French New Wave contemporaries Godard and Truffaut, was heavily influenced by American filmmaking styles–Demy by musicals, Godard and Truffaut by film noir. However, while the Production Code was a dying ember in Hollywood by 1964, it was still alive enough to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg likely could not have been made as a Hollywood film at that time. In code-era Hollywood, a woman pregnant outside of marriage was not something that could have been shown as explicitly as it was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg–and certainly not with one of the best dialogues in the movie:
GENEVIÈVE: Je suis enceinte, maman (I’m pregnant, mom.)
MME. EMERY: C’est épouvantable. Enceinte de Guy? Comment est-ce possible? (This is horrible. Pregnant by Guy? How could it be possible?)
GENEVIÈVE: Rassure-toi, comme tout le monde (Reassure yourself, the same way as everyone).
As I sat in the theater watching this movie on the big screen, I was taken aback by how spectacular it looked. It was even beyond what I was expecting. I had been told that watching it on the big screen was a whole different experience, and I immediately saw what they meant. The colors were even more vibrant, everything was on an even grander scale than I was used to. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. Much of the credit for the beautiful restoration of Jacques Demy’s work goes to his wife, the magnificently talented filmmaker in her own right, Agnès Varda, who we sadly lost just this past month at the age of 90. TCM host Alicia Malone, who introduced the film, fittingly paid tribute to Varda during her introduction, eliciting loud applause from the festival crowd.
This year we also lost the great Michel Legrand, the genius behind the music of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and several other Demy films including The Young Girls of Rochefort. He came from a musical family, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and his sister Christiane Legrand provided the dubbed voice for Geneviève’s mother in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel Legrand became one of France’s most beloved musical personalities, and left a huge footprint in Hollywood film scoring as well, writing the music for such movies as Yentl and The Thomas Crown Affair.
It has been a tough year for fans of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but seeing it on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival was a truly memorable experience, and a fitting tribute to the memories of Varda, Legrand, and Demy himself.