Forgotten Film Friday: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

By: Michael McNulty

It’s Friday night, supper’s finished, the washing ups been done and you’ve settled into the front room. Time for the great debate: what to watch tonight? You’ve exhausted your pre-recorded programmes, there’s nothing tickling your fancy on the TV and all the later screenings at your local cinema started 10 minutes ago. It’s alright there doesn’t need to be a debate, it’s been a long week, relax and enjoy this week’s Forgotten Friday Night Film.

Released in 1964, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy, was a huge critical and commercial success. It picked up the Palme D’or at Cannes as well as the Technical Grand Prize. It is a masterpiece in filmmaking and a reinvention of the musical.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is a bittersweet love story, dripping in melancholy. Auto-mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) are madly in love, the way only film lovers can be. They gaze lovely into each other’s eyes, declare their love for one another, kiss, cuddle, and plan their future together and it is young, honest and charming and impossible not to be swept up by it all yourself. However, Genevieve’s mother is disapproving of their union, her daughter is, after all, only 17 and her lover a 20. The film is set in 1957 during the French-Algeria war, when young men were being drafted to serve. Guy is slapped with a draft notice and shipped off for on a 2 year service, but not before they consummate their relationship. Genevieve falls pregnant and after one letter in two months begins to consider the romantic approaches of wealthy Parisian jeweller, Roland Cassard. To say any more would be to give the film away.

Les Parapluies is a musical like you’ve never seen before. Jacques Demy, deviates from the conventions of the Hollywood musicals made popular by MGM, substituting all the glitz, glamour and high energy, show stopping performances à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for a quiet opera- esque approach. Demy described Les Parapluies as a “film in song,” and it’s just that, entirely sung, from opening credits all the way through to the closing, there are no big numbers or choreographed dance sequences, just the quiet, beautifully sung conversations.

The ordinary, everydayness of the character’s lives is pumped full of emotion through Demy’s use of bright, vibrant pastel colours. Everything from costumes to wallpaper to furnishings, even drinks are painted in stunning blues, greens, pinks, purples and reds. Although there is an artificiality in this, it manages to maintain the reality of the film’s urban location and the characters situations.

The subtle and understated performances of both Catherine Deneuve, which helped to make her the star she is today, and Nino Castelnuovo underline the simplicity of the film. Scenes never include more than the primary players and they don’t need to, keeping the story centred and focused and allowing for Michel Legrand’s magnificent score and songs to shine bright.

The music and the script pair together perfectly. Legrand, the composer, scores the film with jazz that compliments Demy’s sparse script. The music mimics the variations in speech, with its tempo and style complimenting the words, and capturing their emotion, weight and tone superbly.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is pitch perfect, and a perfect film for Friday night.

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