A swell of violins underscores a ballet of pastel umbrellas on a rainy cobblestone street. A burst of brass punctuates the tracking shot into a fire-engine-red mechanic shop. Like the overture of a stage musical, the opening moments of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg ease viewers into the heightened world they’ll be visiting. Then comes the big buy-in moment: A young mechanic and a well-heeled customer discuss his car, only they sing their lines instead of speaking them. “Is it ready?” / “Yes. The engine still knocks when it’s cold, but that’s normal.” Hardly the stuff of poetry. But that’s the point. Every line of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is sung, from passionate declarations of love to exchanges about motor oil. It’s a big enough swing that the movie winkingly lampshades it early on. “I don’t like opera,” one character complains. “All that singing gives me a pain. I like movies better.”
Though Jacques Demy’s innovative 1964 movie musical was rapturously received when it debuted in France as Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, it also became something of a running joke. Parisians would sing “pass the salt” to mock the movie’s unusual sung-through format. When a skeptical French TV interviewer asked Demy why he had his characters sing their restaurant orders when people don’t do that in real life, Demy simply replied, “Why not? It would make life more pleasant!”
There’s no question that pure visceral pleasure is part of the aim of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Demy once called the film “a singing Matisse.” Its vibrant costume and production design work in tandem to make the film feel like a candy store brought to life. Demy shot on location in Cherbourg but had his production designer, Bernard Evein, repaint the buildings in the French port city to evoke the glorious sets of a 1950s Hollywood musical. For his young lovers, Guy and Geneviève, Demy cast 27-year-old Italian actor Nino Castelnuovo and 20-year-old French newcomer Catherine Deneuve, respectively—two of the most beautiful performers to ever be paired together on screen. Deneuve, in particular, glows from her first shot to her last.
If you’ve only seen photos or clips of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, it would be easy to assume it’s a frothy, bubbly movie musical steeped in the buoyant spirit of the early 1960s. Yet the magic act of the film is that while it often looks, feels, and sounds like a romantic comedy, it’s actually a romantic drama. Demy explicitly set out to make a movie that would make people cry. And using the musical genre to evoke the tender, bittersweet feelings of first love seemed like a no-brainer. “I think singing is a natural mode of expression,” Demy explained in that TV interview. While his French New Wave peers often strove for realism in their grounded filmmaking techniques, Demy understood that heightened worlds often evoke the most realistic emotions.
That’s the secret of the musical genre, one its detractors miss when they dismiss musical theater as pure escapist hokum. It’s why I always slightly bristle when Singin’ In The Rain is held up as the greatest movie musical of all time. The gloriously staged but ultimately pretty emotionally simplistic Gene Kelly movie only captures a fraction of the range of musicals as an art form. For me, the emotional depth of 1961’s West Side Story is a much stronger encapsulation of the power of musical theater—a power that’s been around since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II helped pioneer the modern book musical in tuneful but complex shows like Oklahoma! and The King And I. West Side Story composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim took those building blocks even further. And while the thrill of color and dance are on display in West Side Story’s big screen adaptation, so is the musical genre’s ability to deliver social commentary and deeply personal relationships.
Although The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg looks like Singin’ In The Rain, it feels more like West Side Story, albeit in a much more intimate, small-scale way. There are no dance numbers in Umbrellas, but it deals in themes of class, war, gender, and personal compromise, while throwing in decidedly un-Hollywood plot points like a young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and a man who visits a sex worker for comfort. Demy and his composer/collaborator Michel Legrand had a hard time selling The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg because they were in many ways pioneering a musical format that wouldn’t become popular onstage until later in the decade: stripped-down, sung-through concept musicals about everyday people’s lives, the sort of thing Sondheim perfected in his 1970 masterpiece Company, the story of a single man trying to figure out why he can’t commit to a relationship. Like Company, Umbrellas asserts that the small dramas of regular life are worthy of heightened interpretation—indeed, that they often feel that way when you’re experiencing them. So even though producers kept telling Demy that his simple, wistful love story would work better as a black-and-white character drama like his first two films, Lola and Bay Of Angels, he insisted The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg had to be a colorful movie musical.
It’s the contrast that makes the film work: the melancholy realties of normal life juxtaposed with the saturated fantasy of how we wish things could be. “People only die of love in the movies,” Geneviève’s mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), tells her 17-year-old daughter when she’s separated from Guy, who’s sent away to do two years of military service in the Algerian War. Love-struck Geneviève doesn’t die when she’s separated from her first love, the man she pledged to marry and raise a family with. Nor does Guy die in the war, the way he might in a more conventionally tragic musical. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is interested in the complexities of real life, not the easy outs of melodrama.
Yet Umbrellas doesn’t mistake realism for cynicism either. There are no villains in Demy’s deeply empathetic world. The wealthy jeweler who vies for Geneviève’s heart while Guy is away (Marc Michel playing the same character from Lola) isn’t a nefarious ne’er-do-well. He’s just a man who’s learned that the passions of first love are sometimes less important than the practicalities of commitment. The plainer girl (Ellen Farner) who Guy at first overlooks doesn’t have Geneviève’s vivaciousness, but there’s a different kind of steeliness to her spirit. A different kind of beauty. As Guy’s and Geneviève’s young lives unfold from the fall of 1957 to Christmas 1963, they each make their own compromises, sometimes with an air of regret but always with a sense of conviction. “Don’t worry about my life, Mother,” Geneviève announces in what could be seen as her lowest moment. “I have no intention whatsoever of wasting it.”
That Demy doesn’t demonize any of his characters is what makes the film bittersweet in the truest sense of the word. The richly saturated romantic comedy world of the first act isn’t a trick; it’s just one lens through which to view life and love. A lens that shifts and changes as we grow older, but maybe—hopefully—never entirely goes away. Umbrellas optimistically suggests that our lives aren’t bound by forces beyond our control. We have agency in our fates. “I want to be happy with you,” one character tells another in a scene that’s both quietly pragmatic, and, in its own way, deeply romantic.
There’s an ethereal quality to The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, both in its tricky tonal tightrope and its glorious visuals. Which is all the more impressive when you consider the logistical difficulties of its production. None of the actors do their own singing in the film, which makes them more akin to silent film actors than regular performers. Although the cast worked with their voice doubles to shape the feeling and rhythm of their performance, on set they couldn’t change so much as an inflection or moment of timing in the pre-recorded tracks. Indeed, because the entire film is set to music, Demy and Legrand essentially had to stage it as they wrote it—factoring in how long it would take someone to cross a room before delivering their next line of dialogue, for instance. Yet all you see in the final film is spontaneity and liveliness. Like an onstage musical, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is an effortful production designed to look effortless.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg eventually builds to a moving end point that can be read any number of different ways. “Is this the saddest happy ending in all of movies, or the happiest sad ending?” Jim Ridley asks in his Criterion essay for the film. “The beauty, and profundity, of Demy’s vision is that it’s both.” The final scene is truthful, not didactic, with a score that contrasts with the onscreen performances in a compellingly enigmatic way. As Demy’s wife and fellow legendary French filmmaker Agnès Varda mused in a 2008 documentary, “I think Jacques really understood the ambiguity of emotions.”
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg won the top prize at Cannes, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay. As The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd points out, adoration for the film has only grown over the years, especially since modern restorations have revived the richly saturated colors and lush soundtrack that originally made it so special. Umbrellas had a big cultural moment in 2016, when Damien Chazelle cited it as one of the main inspirations behind La La Land—another movie musical that looks at the realities of life through a heightened fantasy lens, although one that has a much more conventionally hummable score than Umbrellas’ unusual recitative.
In many ways, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg stands as a curio: a unique cinematic operetta experiment that even Demy himself could never quite replicate in his subsequent movie musicals. But in other ways it’s a loving tribute to the lesser celebrated side of the musical genre—the emotional depth that can only come from setting feelings to music. Legrand’s “I Will Wait For You” joins the likes of The King And I’s “Something Wonderful” and Company’s “Being Alive” and “Sorry-Grateful” as ballads that are at once wholeheartedly earnest and emotionally complex. With its mix of clear-eyed realism and pop art fantasy, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg offers a love story as complicated as any big screen romance, comedic or dramatic.
Next time: Silver Linings Playbook swept the Oscars at the rom-com genre’s lowest moment.