Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
One of the original goals of this feature, as outlined in the mission statement I wrote two summers ago, was to occasionally compare a winner of the Palme D’Or to the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture the same year. It would be a study in contrasts, I reasoned—a way to underline what these two very different annual awards represent. Well, so much for that plan: With only a couple exceptions, I’ve mostly left the Oscars out of Palme Thursday. There’s just too much ground to cover with every Cannes lineup to worry about working in the Academy’s history of questionable calls. Besides, the Oscars are almost too different—in priorities, in function, certainly in decision-making—for any comparison to be useful. Most years, there’s so little overlap in what Cannes and the Academy deem prize-worthy that the two events might as well be happening in alternate universes.
1964 is an exception, however. This is one year when Academy members and the jury of Frances’ premier film festival seemed to be on a similar wavelength—which is to say, both groups found a movie that spoke to them through the universal language of song. Musicals went over big with the Academy in the 1960s, when Hollywood was pouring lots of money and talent into the genre. And of the four musicals that won Best Picture over the course of the decade, none were probably as well-received as My Fair Lady, George Cukor’s 1964 adaptation of the Broadway sensation, a film of lavish production and costume design, and of beloved showstoppers crooned (or at least lip-synced, in the case of Audrey Hepburn) by glamorous stars. But six months before this revered classic opened in theaters—and nearly a year before it won a whopping eight Academy Awards—Fritz Lang and the other members of the 1964 Cannes jury fell in love with a different musical romance, a French confection deeply indebted to the work of Hollywood song-and-dance masters like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly.
As vibrantly colorful as any musical of the period, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg nevertheless feels like a bold alternative to contemporaneous American mega-productions like My Fair Lady and the following year’s Oscar winner, The Sound Of Music. For one thing, Umbrellas is entirely sung-through, which is to say that the actors sing every single line of dialogue. There are no individual “numbers” really, just a series of recitative song conversations, performed to the rhapsodic, jazz-inflected tune of Michel Legrand’s score. It’s more opera than standard film musical, and the closest the movie comes to a choreographed set piece is the opening credits, in which a series of colorful umbrellas—glimpsed from above, during a light downpour—crisscross the frame like dancers, occasionally drifting into a Busby Berkeley-worthy configuration.
And yet what really separates Demy’s timeless lament for first love from the big musicals being made on the other side of globe is its modest scope. At 91 minutes, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is about half the length of My Fair Lady—and the slim running time perfectly suits its nearly universal story of a romance that burns brightly in its teenage infancy, before fading to a dim ember in the years that follow. Whereas Cukor’s film is a feat of glorious artificiality, creating a turn-of-the-century London from scratch, Demy’s more grounded musical revels in the ordinariness of its setting, even as the French New Wave director embellishes his real locations with pop-art production design. Umbrellas’ niftiest trick is the way it uses the conventions of its genre—bright colors, swelling music, a general impression of the world as a giant stage—to capture how its young lovers look at life and each other… at least until they grow up, sober up, and gain a deeper (if less intense) understanding of what it means to love someone. It’s bittersweet to its core, and all the more affecting for it.
Spanning six years, from 1957 until the final days of 1963, the film unfolds across three distinct chapters (plus an epilogue): “The Departure,” in which young mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) courts teenage umbrella merchant Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve, only 20 at the time of filming), the two sharing a first and final night of passion before he’s drafted into the Algerian War; “Absence,” in which Geneviève discovers that she’s pregnant, grows disillusioned with the infrequency of Guy’s letters, and considers a marriage proposal from Cassard (Marc Michel), who previously appeared in Demy’s Lola; and “The Return,” in which Guy comes back to Cherbourg, depressed that he’s lost contact with his teenage love, before rebounding into a romance with Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the nurse who’s carried a torch for him for years.
Musicals are often appreciated as pure escapism, and only occasionally cited for their emotional complexity. What’s special about The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is that it provides the requisite bounce and fizz the genre all but demands, while also working as an insightful, sadly relatable portrait of the way most early relationships tend to unravel (with or without the epic interruption of a war). Demy doesn’t diminish what Guy and Geneviève have; the film’s first act is about as rapturous a celebration of puppy love as the movies have given us. At the same time, though, the filmmaker recognizes how vulnerable these early flings can be—how easy it is for them to shatter under the weight of distance, or complications, or the normal process of growing into the person you’re going to be. Demy really threads the needle here, giving us a love story for the ages, while also pragmatically acknowledging the sometimes-transitory nature of adolescent passion.
Somewhat unbelievably, he had trouble getting The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg made. There’s an amusing anecdote in the 2008 documentary included within the Criterion release of Umbrellas in which the director recalls pitching the project to Italian producer Carlo Ponti. “I really like your story,” Ponti is said to have remarked. “But you should shoot it in black and white, since color’s too expensive. You should change the title, since it tells us nothing. And use normal dialogue, not people singing.” Had Demy caved to these caveats, he might still have emerged with a shrewd study of teenage amour, but he would have lost the qualities that make Umbrellas so unique.
The colors are especially indispensable. Demy presents a fairly ordinary setting, the French city of the title, and paints it with loud, striking hues—the yellow of Guy’s bicycle, the pink of Geneviève’s dress, the deep and encompassing red of a nightclub. Every wall and alley the characters pass is splashed in a primary color, rendered rich through the master lensing of Jean Rabier and the special Eastman negative film stock he shot on. And yet Cherbourg still feels like a real place, unlike the Technicolor New York City of West Side Story, another ’60s Best Picture winner (about teen paramours facing obstacles, to boot). Demy’s young lovers haven’t stumbled into a fantasy world; their feelings have just transformed the way they see their normal surroundings. It’s an emotionally heightened vision of the everyday.
As for the music, it’s memorable—sweepingly romantic or big-band brassy or totally heart-wrenching, as needed—without ever becoming catchy, exactly. We’re hearing arias and seeing actors pretend to sing (like Hepburn in My Fair Lady, the cast relies entirely on voice doubles—the difference here being that all of their lines are dubbed, which makes evaluating the acting an interesting challenge). But though Umbrellas’ lyrics aren’t likely to inspire many Sound Of Music-style sing-alongs, its melodies have a way of worming their way into the brain. Legrand’s eclectic, wall-to-wall score does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, sometimes conveying what the characters cannot; for example, we know instantly that Madeleine is crazy about Guy, even though nothing she initially says (or sings) indicates as much. The tender lilt of her theme betrays her.
That discrepancy—between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing—becomes especially important during the film’s justly revered ending, a denouement for the ages. I can’t add much more of value to what Mike D’Angelo wrote about the closing moments for Scenic Routes a while back, except to note that I detect something powerfully hopeful about what appears to be a fundamentally melancholy conclusion. Maybe it’s that Demy chose to end his film at a gas station; he grew up in one himself, and often spoke fondly of the smell of gasoline and pastries, which lends the closing image of family reunion a contextual poignancy. More than that though—and I’m traipsing pretty far into spoiler territory here, if I haven’t already gotten there—I think what makes the ending so moving is that it allows Guy and Geneviève a moment of bittersweet closure, while also recognizing that they’ve found something equally (if not more) meaningful. Here, Demy again is pulling off a remarkable balancing act, issuing a wintery eulogy for first love—an experience that can never be replicated—while reminding us that happiness and contentment of a different kind can be found in its aftermath.
After it won the top prize at Cannes (the Grand Prix International Du Festival, which replaced the Palme D’Or that year, a change that wouldn’t be reversed for a decade), The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg went on to great commercial and critical success, both in France and the United States. Legrand’s career exploded: After receiving two Oscar nominations for Umbrellas, he became an in-demand Hollywood composer. Two of the film’s songs, “Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait For You” (the main theme), were international hits, the latter eventually covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett to Cher. The movie also made Catherine Deneuve a star; the following year she’d deliver one of the great genre performances of all time in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Only Demy failed to go supernova after Umbrellas, his third feature. To some critics, he was still an outlier among his New Wave contemporaries—a director obsessed with the sweep and flair of Hollywood films (especially musicals), making swoon-worthy romances while the other members of his movement were going political or more overtly personal. He never quite achieved the same level of popular or critical success as he did here, though he continued to make interesting films (like his English-language debut, Model Shop). Nonetheless, Umbrellas’ reputation has only improved over the years, to the point that it’s become a kind of consensus masterpiece of ’60s cinema. Affection for the film runs on the opposite trajectory as its love story: While the passion between Guy and Geneviève gradually dulls, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg only grows richer, brighter, and more meaningful with distance. Can the same be said for the musicals Oscar championed during the same era?
Did it deserve to win? Or, for that matter, for any of the films Umbrellas was up against at Cannes in 1964? Demy’s tender classic is a model of aging gracefully, which is certainly more than can be said for another French New Wave title in competition, François Truffaut’s overlong infidelity thriller The Soft Skin. Two worthy competitors from the lineup: Pietro Germi’s ruthless relationship satire Seduced And Abandoned, which is almost as caustically funny as his earlier Divorce, Italian Style; and the haunting, allegorical Woman In The Dunes, whose maker, Hiroshi Teshigahara, became the first Japanese recipient of a Best Director Oscar nomination.
Next up: The Hireling and Scarecrow