The Poetry of Heartbreak in 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg'

Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery (IMDB)

Jacques Demy's dazzling musical explores a realistic side of love -- one that doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)

Director: Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Rated: G
US DVD release date: 2017-04-11

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) opens on a wonderfully contrarian note. As the title credits appear, the frame tilts down onto the stone streets of the Cherbourg waterfront. A light rain begins, and pastel umbrellas seen from above break into a choreographed dance that culminates with umbrellas filling up the frame. It’s charming in a self-aware, nostalgic sort of way. It also implies that director Jacques Demy has more in common with musical traditionalists like Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli than any of his French New Wave peers. When in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Throughout its 91 minute runtime, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has no choreographed dance numbers, no grandiose set pieces, and no discernible break between songs. With its sung-through structure (the characters sing all of their dialogue), the film might actually have more in common with an operetta than it does a traditional musical. From this untapped creative space, Demy instead creates a film that uses the genre’s fanciful aesthetic to explore a realistic depiction of love -- one that doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.

Set between 1957 and 1963, the plot is divided into three sections. In the first, “The Departure", we meet Geneviéve (Catherine Deneuve), the daughter of an umbrella shop owner who’s fallen head over heels for auto mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Demy quickly establishes their relationship as an innocent one -- they discuss having children while playfully balancing along train rails -- but never does he diminish its importance. In fact, one could call “The Departure” as joyous a celebration of puppy love as the genre has ever seen. Guy and Geneviéve kiss each other's hands and shoot loving gazes when the other isn’t looking. They plug every pause in their conversation with laughter. Even their clothing, color-coordinated in pink, plays up their emotional union. When the film was released, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was so perplexed by this he couldn’t tell whether or not The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was aiming for satire.

But this overt joy is instantly jilted in “The Absence”, as Guy is sent off to fight in the Algerian War. Geneviéve promises to wait for him, but it doesn't take long for her insecurities -- and the film’s true intent -- to surface. Her mother’s shrill warnings of being forgotten fester as Guy’s letters become less and less frequent. Worse, Geneviéve is pregnant, and her poor financial situation deems it necessary that she find a provider as soon as possible. It’s here that Demy works against the genre’s typically grand scope for a smaller, more character-driven framework. By focusing on Geneviéve’s maturity, and the decisions that it brings about, we see a woman who can no longer afford to cling to her girlish whims. Deneuve’s performance takes on a somber tone here, singing as if each new lyric erases part of the future she had planned for herself.

Demy’s choice to make the visuals harmonious with the characters further blurs the lines between realism and musical artifice. This is most evident in the color of Geneviéve’s clothing, which correlates with her emotional state throughout the film. In early scenes with Guy, she’s displayed in bright neon dresses that evoke her passion. Her vulnerability in Guy’s absence is shown through baby blue, and when she agrees to marry a local jeweler (Marc Michel), she wears white; surrendering at last to her desire for stability. Demy makes sure not to vilify Geneviéve here, allowing us to understand her actions and even sympathize with her.


Guy comes home to a dreary Cherbourg in “The Return”. Forced to cope with the fact that Geneviéve has moved on, Guy decides to limp down the memory lane of their youth, broken heart in tow. This is the film’s unmitigated lowpoint. Composer Michel Legrand mirrors this through the music, as lush strings make way for a marimba section that sounds right out of a seamy cabaret. All the while, the film’s theme (“I Will Wait for You”) lingers in the background; the once hopeful refrain now a haunting reminder of Geneviéve’s broken promise. Guy comes out of this misery a changed man -- jaded, perhaps, but matured in a way that’s only too familiar for those who’ve dealt with heartbreak.

By the time Guy and Geneviéve cross paths again in the epilogue (set four years after “The Return”), they’ve fully transitioned into adulthood. Their clothing is drab and practical. Their dialogue is brief and stilted, as if unsure of who the other person has become. Have they moved on with their lives? Do they still have feelings for each other? Demy doesn’t offer a clear indication either way. In his ambiguity, he does something much riskier: he forces us to decide for ourselves -- to project our own experiences as a cynic or a romantic onto the characters. It’s an ending that doesn’t tell you what to feel, but as A.V. Club critic Mike D’Angelo notes, “feeling nothing is impossible.”

Admittedly, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has its flaws. The sing-through structure takes some getting used to in the opening scenes, and there are times when the dialogue can come off unintentionally funny in song form. But even when the artificiality distances us, Demy’s ability to capture young love, in all its glory and fragility, pulls us back in and resonates.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release comes with a 2k digital restoration that ranks among its finest work to date. With its vibrant color scheme and pop-art production design, the film hasn’t looked this good since its original release in 1964. The bonus features are informative, if fairly standard, with a featurette on the restoration process and interviews with Deneuve, Legrand, and film scholar Rodney Hill. In the latter, Hill discusses the film’s lasting impact and its unique place in the French New Wave canon.

The crown jewel of these features, however, is the 2008 documentary Once Upon a Time… The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Mixing archival footage and production stills with stories from Demy’s wife Agnés Varda, it paints a vivid portrait of the director as he fought to bring The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to life. The result is a documentary whose passion and sincerity equals that of its subject matter.


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