Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964)

Pigen med paraplyerne
I went into “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” knowing that this is a movie that is loved by many people and is praised by many critics. This is supposed to be really awesome, yet my immediate reaction to the movie was disappointment and disinterest.

What I discovered early on was that this is a very banal story about young love and a love triangle where all dialogue is replaced by singing. Not by songs per se, but singing conversations. It was weird and sentimental and oh so melodramatic. I felt that I was definitely in the wrong target group for this movie and wondered how I would get through it.

This was not how I expected this movie to be.

However, something happened along the way and certainly in the aftermath of watching it. I am not sure I am going to actually like it, but I am definitely going to respect it and value it a lot higher than that initial impression.

It is a very banal story. Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are young, very young, and madly in love. Guy works at a petrol station and Genevieve helps her mother with her umbrella shop. Yeah, apparently back then you could have a shop selling only umbrellas, but maybe that is why the shop was in trouble. On the last night before Guy has to leave for two years of military service (with no leave to go home) the two of them consummate their relationship and soon after Genevieve is pregnant, voila.

Being without Guy is hard, especially with a child, and so it is lucky that Monsieur Cassard (March Michel) shows up to court Genevieve. He is also rich, sincere and want to raise the child as his own.

After two years Guy is back in Cherbourg and Genevieve is long gone and married. Guy is pretty disappointed, but hooks up with his cousin (!?) Madeleine (Ellen Famer), gets married and they have a child of their own.

Pretty straight forward, right? But then there are all the small twists. In a standard melodrama Genevieve would have somehow held out, or as Guy returns, they would be reunited, but that is not how reality works. Life moves on and two years is a very long time when you are 17 years old. When Guy and Genevieve finally meet 4 years later they are both in a different place that is also fine and they have very little to say to each other. That could be very cynical, but it is not. It is actually very beautiful and reminded me of the conclusion of “Cast-Away”. You cannot reset the clock, but you can move on and come to terms with what has happened.

The singing that so annoyed me also ended up actually working. The characters are not suddenly bursting out into song, nor do they start dancing with a whole chorus behind them, this is just regular dialogue that is song instead of spoken, and somehow the impact is larger for it. No dancing gangsters or cowboys. The music itself is also pretty incredible. It is a mishmash of styles, but each fitting perfectly to the situation and the theme of the lovers is so catchy that is has been stuck in my head ever since finishing the movie and that is a few days ago by now.

On the other hand this is not entirely working class realism either. There is an element of magic, emphasized by the music and the saturated colors. A fairy tale element that strangely work together with the stark realism.

Oh, and the weirdest thing: Monsieur Cassard is actually Rolland Cassard in “Lola”. Back then he got burned and moved out of Nantes. Now he made a fortune and this time he gets the girl. C’est la Vie.

In the final analysis “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” ends on the positive side, despite my initial grumblings. It probably helps to be a lover of musicals or French melodrama, but if even a cynic like me can get something out of this, then it cannot be all bad.


  1. You know, I've started this movie twice but never finished it. I'm eager to see what the total experience is like. I've liked the other Demy movies I have seen.

    1. I think Lola was very good and appealed to me better than The Umbrellas, but this also has a lot going for it and I think you will enjoy it this time.

  2. I am glad you ended up feeling positive about the film. I agree about the aura of magic with the music and the colours. I do love traditional musicals, but it is so refreshing to see something so different.

    My favourite scene was at the train station as Genevieve and Guy sing "I love you" to each other. It would not work in a realistic film, but here is perfect! And yes, the ending is wonderful, if bittersweet.

    1. To me it is the ending that sells the movie. This could have and usually would have gone in very different ways. That Demy chose this ending marked out the movie as special.
      I am not sure if I actually liked the train station theme, but the music there was just amazing. The song is still there in my head, it will not let me go.

  3. I rather like this one. I think that it's a bit banal works for it pretty well. It makes that part of the story real because the way the story is told is so unreal.

    I also love the ending. In so many films, we'd got something much more "romantic" but less human. Here, we get something very human and beautiful in its own way. So--yeah, I completely agree with you on that aspect.

    1. Yes, in the final analysis this comes out positive. What seems at first ackward and weird turns out to be strengths in the end.
      The ending is definitely a winning point. It sets it miles above the usual musical fare.