Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France. I didn’t have a clue about how faithful it is to everyday French life. I’d already seen and enjoyed at least a couple of Jacques Demy movies by then: his ravishing first feature, Lola (1960), one of the seminal works of the French New Wave, as well as his charming sketch on “la luxure” in The Seven Capital Sins, one of the long-forgotten portmanteau features of that era. My trouble with Demy began with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and with its alleged charm. A completely sung movie with music by Michel Legrand, it can’t truly be called a musical, an opera, or even an operetta, though it borrows elements from all three. But to my taste at the time, it was a commercial sellout, positively cloying in its calculated charm — a sentimental festival of gaudy pastels (it was Demy’s first film in color) that cried out for mainstream acceptance, and even had the brass to feature an Esso station prominently in the final sequences, a case of unabashed product placement if there ever was one. When the movie was nominated for an Oscar –something that had never happened with any genuine New Wave pictures, only with corny pretenders like Black Orpheus, Sundays and Cybele, and A Man and a Woman — I concluded that the nomination only proved my point.

What a dunderhead I was. Moreover, my misunderstanding of Demy’s achievement was shared by many others. In this country people got the idea that Demy was a minor director, and kept that belief for the remainder of his career. I began to suspect the error of my ways only when I caught Demy’s extravagant 1966 Umbrellas spin-off in third or fourth run, during my second summer trip to Paris — The Young Girls of Rochefort, an unabashed musical with an even better Legrand score, featuring Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, and Grover Dale (not to mention Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac). By that time I’d seen enough of everyday French life to realize that Demy was very far from offering a saccharine treatment of it, that he was up to something much more complicated and profound. His poetic exaltation of the ordinary, bursting with emotion, had its share of dark irony as well as respect, and whether or not it was set to music, it was far more rooted in reality than I’d been willing to admit.

During my first visit to France I looked up a former teacher, who was working the night shift at a local newspaper in Rouen, and when I accompanied him to work one evening I was amazed to see him shake hands with every one of his coworkers when he arrived. I soon discovered that this kind of formality is also present in the everyday speech patterns of the French, who trot out formulas on all sorts of occasions: they’re just as common in intimate conversations between lovers and close relatives as they are between coworkers or between clerks and customers. Almost in its entirety, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a heartfelt, passionate, tragic musical suite made up of these formulas, which the film both celebrates and wryly examines to discover their inner logic: how they actually work, what they do and don’t do.

Here’s another way of putting it: the very first lines of dialogue in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, all of them sung to big-band jazz, have in themselves a formal, almost musical rhythm. The setting is a garage, where the rain — which started behind the credits — is still falling. The camera keeps tracking back and forth, first with a customer, then with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), as each looks out at the rain then returns to the garage interior. (The following translation is mine.)

Customer (returning to the garage): “Finished yet?”

Guy (working on car): “Yep. The engine still rattles when it gets cold, but that’s usual.”

Customer: “Thanks.”

Guy: “Thank you.”

Boss (in the background): “Foucher–could you stay an extra hour tonight?”

Guy: “Tonight would be a problem. But I think Pierre’s free. Pierre–could you stay later tonight?”

Pierre: “Yes.”

Boss (to Pierre): “Check the ignition of the gentleman’s Mercedes.”

It’s the most normal talk in the world. But because this is France, where even everyday talk is formalized, it has a strong rhythmic pattern in the original French — the way the customer and Guy say merci to each other, for instance, or the way the two uses of ce soir (“tonight”) and the Foucher and Pierre pair off like rhymes. Singing this somewhat musical everyday speech merely places its formal aspect in higher relief.

Guy, as it happens, can’t stay an extra hour because he has a date with Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) to see the opera Carmen — something an American mechanic would be unlikely to see (though one of Guy’s cohorts in the washroom remarks twice that he prefers movies to opera). It all seems very normal. Yet someone seeing the movie a second time may note that the gentleman with the black Mercedes whose ignition needs checking is none other than Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), the diamond merchant who later marries Geneviève but whom Guy never meets. (Nor is this the only strange confluence in Demy’s universe: Cassard, played by the same actor, is also a major character in Lola, a fact that’s alluded to directly much later in Umbrellas; even Legrand’s lovely main theme for Lola is appropriated here.)

Why this preoccupation with normal life? We learn from Agnès Varda, Demy’s wife, in her loving film portrait of her late husband’s childhood, Jacquot de Nantes, that Demy’s father worked in a garage just like Guy’s. But this furnishes only one piece of the puzzle. Demy’s fixation on everyday life — especially family life –has, I think, psychosexual roots much deeper than the facts of his biography. The only real counterpart to Demy I can think of is the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). His thematic and formal preoccupations also converge in a system of quotidian rituals — not only rituals like getting married, going off to war, having kids, and losing or finding work but also such minor rituals as saying “Good morning” and “Thank you.” One of Ozu’s sublime late films, Good Morning, is very much concerned with that particular salutation — as is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which has more than its share of bonjours, each one musically placed.

The fascination of Ozu and Demy with “normal” family life was emotionally and philosophically complex –their views both idealized and ironic, bitterly tragic and stringently comic, because they came at least in part from the vantage point of outsiders who chose to express themselves in mainstream terms. It may say something about the difference between Japan and France — as well as the difference between Ozu and Demy as artists — that Ozu’s films are full of father figures and Demy’s are more often bereft of them (with a few exceptions in the latter portion of his career). But their views of the human condition are surprisingly similar. (Viewers who don’t want to know the whole story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are advised to step off here.)

Returning from Algeria in 1959 and finding Genevieèe gone, Guy quits his job at the garage to live on his military pension. At loose ends, he’s almost as much of an emotional mess as the young veteran of the Algerian war from Boulogne in Alain Resnais’ Muriel (1963) — perhaps the only other major French film of the period to deal with the traumatic effect of that war on French civilian life, an effect that in many ways was echoed by the impact of the Vietnam war on America a few years later. (Muriel is likewise preoccupied with small-town life and everyday rituals, and it has formal parallels with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well: just after Guy and Geneviève go to bed together, for the first and only time, there are rhythmic cuts to three locations, now empty, where we’d previously seen them, in a manner that explicitly recalls not only Muriel but the final sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse, made in 1962.)

After spending a night with a prostitute, Guy discovers that his devoted Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) has died during his absence. He inherits enough money from her to buy an Esso station in town and winds up marrying Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the young woman who took care of his aunt.

We move ahead to Christmas 1963 (about six weeks prior to the Paris premiere of the film): Guy and Madeleine are trimming the Christmas tree inside the office of their Esso station. They have a little boy now, and snow is falling in heaps (another ironic “rhyme,” this one with the equally artificial and stylized rainfall of the opening sequence). Madeleine and the boy, Francois, go out for a walk, and Geneviève pulls up in the black Mercedes with her little girl, Françoise — Guy’s daughter. Recognizing Geneviève with a start, Guy invites her into the office. She says that this is her first trip to Cherbourg since her marriage; she’s bringing Françoise back from a visit with her paternal grandmother, she says, and adds that her mother has died. She asks if Guy wants to see Françoise, and he replies, “I think you’d better go.” Their parting exchange couldn’t be more banal: Toi, tout va bien? Oui, tres bien. (“Are things going well with you?” “Yes, very well.”) In long shot, she drives off just as Madeleine and François return from their walk; Guy briefly plays with François in the snow, then all three enter the office as the camera cranes up into the sky.

The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally “Cherbourgian Stopover,” but if we consider that escalader means “to scale or to climb” and escalier means “stairway,” we can read traces of a buried pun: “a bourgeois step up.” Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Geneviève has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before. And as for the Esso sign that gave me so much trouble, what better indication could there be of the Americanization of small-town France, a simple fact of everyday life that this movie treats like any other? Product placement or not, it has the ring of absolute truth.

For all the apparent sugar and spice of Legrand’s memorable score and for all the candy-colored wallpaper, Demy’s social observation in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg couldn’t be more clear-eyed. (Twenty years later, Demy’s class awareness and political consciousness were even more overt in Une chambre à ville, an original opera about a strike of naval workers set in Nantes in the mid-50s. Written without Legrand, it may have been his final masterpiece.) Demy charts with withering accuracy the steps that Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) takes to snare the diamond merchant — a process that begins even before she discovers Geneviève is pregnant. But Demy doesn’t view the process satirically or even judgmentally; he’s simply observing in detail the way French people behave in such situations.

This describes the content of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but the style can’t be labeled realistic even if one ignores the music. Aiming for a heightened reality to set off the more mundane reality of his characters, Demy and his set designer, Bernard Evein, repainted whole sections of Cherbourg so that the colors would be much more vivid and coordinated than they were in real life; a similar approach is evident in the costumes.

This heightening of visual detail is the counterpart of the heightening of emotions and the sharpening of form achieved by setting the dialogue to music. (Though Legrand isn’t credited as the film’s cowriter, his collaboration with Demy, who wrote the lyrics, suggests that he may well deserve to be, for this is a film in which the score and the narrative are inseparable, shaped to the same architecture. Demy once noted that Umbrellas should be described as a film “in song” the way that some films are “in color.”) Jean-Pierre Berthomé, who wrote the only book about Demy I’m aware of — the beautifully observed and richly detailed Jacques Demy: Les racines du rêve (1982) — aptly notes that when Guy and Geneviève sit together in a café on their last evening together, even the drinks they’ve ordered (“Geneviève’s amber aperitif, Guy’s canary yellow pastis”) are color-coordinated with everything else in the scene. Demy’s visual orchestration is the perfect complement to Legrand’s musical orchestration; both create a powerful emotional intensification that perfects or contradicts the banality of the dialogue.

A friend of mine once noted that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of Demy’s five masterpieces, but the weakest of the five; the four others he cited were Lola, The Bay of the Angels (1962), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and Une chambre a ville (1982). (Berthomé writes: “I don’t know if…The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is Jacques Demy’s most beautiful film. What I’m sure of is that it’s the most perfect, certainly the one that’s most faithful to the least of its intentions.”) I’m less sure than my friend that The Bay of the Angels is a masterpiece; I haven’t seen it in years but remember it as campy, particularly in its glamorized treatment of Jeanne Moreau, in ways the other four are not. But The Young Girls of Rochefort has filled me with such unreasoning rapture — especially after I saw it in 70-millimeter several years ago — that I doubt Umbrellas will ever supplant it as my favorite, even in the vibrantly colored 1992 restoration by Varda and Legrand, remixed with Dolby stereo, now showing at the Music Box.

The problem with such lists is that no American I know, including my friend, has seen all of Demy’s work, which includes many partial or outright failures. Among the features, the partial failures I’ve seen are Model Shop (1969, filmed in Los Angeles — his only American movie, providing a fascinating take on this country, it’s been unavailable for decades), his fairy-tale musical Peau d’ane (1970, Donkey Skin), and his last film, shown at the Chicago International Film Festival several years back, Trois places pour le 26 (1988, Three Seats for the 26th, a Legrand musical that stars Yves Montand as himself). The only outright failure I’ve seen is The Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), though some have told me that The Pied Piper (1972) and Lady Oscar (1979) are comparably weak. But even this list leaves out the 1980 TV feature La naissance du jour (a Colette adaptation), the 1985 Parking (a non-Legrand musical), and the 1988 La table tournante.

Both Chabrol and Demy have been unjustifiably eclipsed in this country, in part because their oeuvres are uneven. But if filmmakers are ranked according to their best work rather than their midlevel output, Demy is comparable in stature not only to Chabrol but even to François Truffaut. As entertainers, Truffaut and Chabrol are both clearly superior to Demy; but if one looks only at the greatest works of these three, it seems to me self-evident that Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Une chambre a ville can stand unabashedly alongside such films as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Green Room and Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes, La femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le boucher.

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.