A young couple in the blush of first love get separated by war and other inconveniences. Their young dreams and the world’s harsh realities come into conflict, bringing the story to an ending that is neither happy nor sad, but bittersweet.
That sounds like a drama, but Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical. Or, more correctly, an opera, since the characters don’t talk at all; they just sing. And all this singing is played visually against a riot of beautifully designed color.
And yet, this 1964 movie is
part of the French New Wave. Writer/director Jacques Demy took part in that revolutionary cinematic movement, but his films looked like nothing that came from Godard or Truffaut.
A very young and ravishingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve plays Geneviève. She lives and works with her mother, running the umbrella store that gives the film its title. When we first meet her, she’s already in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), and he’s just as in love with her.
But the year is 1957 and Guy is drafted into the war with Algeria. Over the six years of Umbrellas’ story, things don’t go as the lovers had wanted.
And through it all, everyone sings. Composer Michel Legrand creates a lush, romantic score, heavily salted with jazz. Unlike American musicals – or for that matter, Grand Opera – there’s no significant dancing here. That would only subtract from a musical about such ordinary people – if you can call people who look like Deneuve and Castelnuovo ordinary.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a supremely romantic film. The story, or something like it, happens to everyone. But this time, it happens in a hyper-idealized, musical universe.
How It Looks
Cinematographer Jean Rabier and production designer Bernard Evein created a brightly-colored, flatly-lit look that helps emphasize the stylization of the opera. The disc’s 1080p video, made from a 2K digital restoration, captures the look to near perfection.
Although, to be honest, that probably wasn’t difficult. Flat lighting is easier to digitize than atmospheric lighting.
Criterion presents The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the 1.85×1 aspect ratio, giving it a slight letterboxing in a widescreen TV. This seems like an odd choice; in 1960s France, 1.66×1 was the preferred screen shape. But it’s not a big deal; most films of that period were shot to work well in both ratios.
How It Sounds
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was originally released with only mono sound. But it’s presented here only in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I would have preferred an option to hear the original mono mix.
But after listening to the movie, I wasn’t too upset. The mix sounds very much like mono, anyway.
However many tracks it really uses, the sound is pleasing and I have no complaints.
And the Extras
No commentary tracks, but plenty of other extras.
- A Finite Forever: This article by Jim Ridley dominates the paper foldout. Ridley defends the film from its detractors, and discusses how the artifice heightens the realistic story. The foldout also includes credits for the film and the Blu-ray.
- Timeline: As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, you can create your own bookmarks.
- Once Upon a Time...”The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: 54 minutes. This documentary from 2008 includes interviews with Demy, Deneuve, Agnes Varda (Demy’s widow), and others. It covers everything about the film, including how the actors and singers worked together and the symbolism of the Algerian War.
- Rodney Hill: 23 minutes. In this interview, film scholar Hill provides yet another argument as to why Demy and this film belong in the French New Wave.
- Cinepanorama: 11 minutes. Demy and Legrand get interviewed in a 1964 French TV program. This clip is seriously marred by an idiotic interviewer.
- Michel Legrand at the National Film Theater: 27 minutes. Audio only, except for one production photo to give us something to look at. This 1991 interview has some interesting stuff, but it’s also kind of boring.
- Catherine Deneuve at the National Film Theater: 11 minutes. Audio only interview from 1983, again with the only one photo to look at (on the other hand, it’s a picture of Deneuve). More interesting than Legrand’s interview, possibly because it’s shorter and more focused.
- Restoration demonstration: 6 minutes. Not so much a demonstration as a short documentary on the restoration, visually explaining things like black and white separations and dirt removal. I loved it. In French with English subtitles.
- Trailer: two minutes. It appears that whoever was selling this movie didn’t want people to know it was a musical. You hear the theme song and see clips from the film, but you never see the actors singing.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a movie like no other. It’s joyful, sad, romantic, and beautiful to the eyes and ears.