Monday, January 06, 2014

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The last time I tried to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it was also at the Brattle, although it appears to have been long enough back that I wasn't assiduously writing everything up, especially if a nap occurred. I'm not saying it necessarily did, since there are jumps in this movie that can make it seem like I missed more than I did if I watched it while ailing or tired and thus didn't see every detail lodge itself in my head, but it's the sort of movie where that might happen, airy and light and I quite possibly wasn't in the right mood.

That's why I was maybe a little reluctant this time around, not just because of the possibility of a wasted afternoon out, but because it left the impression of "that's a neat trick". It's very easy to see Umbrellas as a gimmick movie, with its bright colors and sung dialogue, and that's about where I was with it. It is, of course, better than that, and maybe the next time I see it I'll swoon in the way that it deserves (or at least, the way which seems to be the most appropriate reaction). This time, after all, I simply grew fond. Perhaps true love takes time.

It at least looked very nice at the Brattle, which snuck its anniversary booking of the movie's new digital restoration in early for Christmas (it turns 50 this year). It's not necessarily a strong tie - only the finale sequence really gives it an argument for being a holiday movie, though it is better to end on Christmas than have the day come elsewhere in the picture. I was kind of disappointed that I couldn't get to their other Christmas movie (Die Hard). Between missing that and not watching the "Blue Carbuncle" episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes this year, I missed out on some holiday viewing traditions.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2013 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagements, 2K DCP)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the more specific reasons why I wish I'd put more effort into French class back in high school. It is, after all, a beautiful movie in both its visuals and simple construction, but the bigger problem is that I just don't hear subtitles as sung in my head. It's sad to see a great film and know one is missing something, even though its greatness is still obvious.

Things start out simply enough. The year is 1957, and seventeen-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) is madly in love with twenty-year-old mechanic Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo). Her mother (Anne Vernon) does not approve, though that may have more to do with still seeing her daughter as a child than any specific problem with the affable Guy. Then again, when mother and daughter meet debonair Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a dealer in precious gems, the mother's mind changes, especially as Guy has been called to do his military service while there is a war in Algeria. And then Geneviève finds herself pregnant...

From the very start, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg applies the trappings of a fairy tale to its story. It is full of pastel colors, bright, reedy music, and characters who express themselves simply, singing their words rather than just speaking them. In other movies this might be a source of bitter irony, as life proves not to be a fairy tale. Present-day practicalities may trump grand promises meant to be kept over years; both a woman's suitors may be good men; love may be unbalanced and imperfect. But though many of these things may turn out true, writer/director Jacques Demy does not feel the need to be cruel about it. Life may not be a fairy tale, but there is still a beauty to be found in it. It may be tinged with melancholy and might-have-beens, but that's the way it is.

Speaking of beauty, this film introduced the world to Catherine Deneuve, and though it is not necessarily her voice we hear - singing voices are listed for all the main characters; for Mlle. Deneuve, it would be Danielle Licari - it is her eyes we see, wide and full of an innocence that marks her as not just untouched, but unformed. Fifty years later, even though styles have changed, changed back, and changed again, there's still something breathtaking about her, a first impression that sticks with the audience even as the reality gets more complicated.

The rest of the cast often exists in her shadow, even when she's not on screen. Marc Michel (with Georges Blaness singing) reprises a character he'd played in one of Demy's previous films, and it's a small miracle that fifty years on, Roland does not come across as a creep who should perhaps be romancing Geneviève's mother instead of her; there's a sincerity to him that lets the audience believe in his romantic soul and heartbreak, even when we haven't seen Lola. Nino Castelnuovo (sung by José Bartel) doesn't impress quite so much until we see him on his own, but he does stand out from the folks doing passable well in smaller roles - Anne Vernon as Geneviève's mother, Mireille Perrey as Guy's aunt, and Ellen Farner as her nurse Madeline.

Farner does get one of the movie's more memorable moments, a great example of what can be done with just a look and a bit of camera movement. It's the sort of thing that demonstrates just how carefully Demy and his crew have worked to make everything seem light and breezy, from the bright wallpaper that looks both cheery and worn to Michel Legrand's effervescent score. There's a calculated simplicity to the entire film, but it's a matter of going without needless complications rather than taking shortcuts.

The singing does, admittedly, seem a little forced at times, as Demy isn't writing lyrics but just words Or maybe that's in my head, where I'm falling just short of synchronizing the English translation with the music or the spot where an actor's voice rises. That, however, is my issue rather than the movie's, and the deceptively simple beauty of everything else makes up for it.

Full review at EFC.

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