Fifty years old this spring (it won the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes festival) and wearing well, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is inspired as much by René Clair's innovative French classic of 1930, Sous les toits de Paris, and the prewar Pagnol Marseilles trilogy (Marius/Fanny/César) as by Hollywood. Set between 1957 and 1963, it stars the young Catherine Deneuve, also the star of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. She's enchanting as an umbrella shopkeeper's teenage daughter left pregnant by her mechanic boyfriend (who's gone to do his military service in the Algerian war) and forced by her mother to marry a rich jeweller. It's a sung-through musical with no conventionally spoken dialogue, the score dominated by Legrand's If it Takes Forever. Like Antonioni's Red Desert, made in the same year, it paints a rather drab town in colours that reflect the characters' moods.
Philip French, The Observer, 9th February 2014.
Has there ever been an actress in the history of the movies who has changed as little and aged as slowly as Catherine Deneuve? Here she is in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," her first major film, made in 1964 and now restored. Thirty-one years later, I met her at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. To the degree that she had changed, it was simply to ripen, to add experience and sympathy to the raw beauty of a teenager. I am not making empty compliments. Her beauty, then and now, is like a blow to the eyes.
When she made "Umbrellas" for the French director Jacques Demy, Deneuve was 20, and her work in this film was a flowering that introduced one of the great stars of modern French cinema. The film itself was a curious experiment in which all of the words were sung; Michel Legrand wrote the wall-to-wall score, which includes not only the famous main theme and other songs, but also Demy's sung dialogue, in the style of the lines used to link passages in opera. This style would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but "Umbrellas" is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all.
Demy's film was a worldwide hit when it was first released, but if its star did not age, its film stock did. Like many of the movies shot in the 1960s, it was released in a version of Eastmancolor that did not remain true to the original colors. The greens and blues lost their strength, leaving the film looking pink, as if it had faded in a bright sun. Demy regained control of the film a few years before his death in 1990, and I remember a summer day in 1989 when I sat with Demy and his wife, the director Agnes Varda, in the garden of their house in Paris, and they talked of restoring the film's original color. That task was finally finished by Varda in 1994, and now here is "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" again, looking as bright and fresh as on the day it premiered.
The story is a sad one, yes, but it ends on a note we can only conclude is the right one. (Do not read further until you see the film.) Deneuve plays a young woman named Genevieve, who is head over heels in love with a local garage mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Her mother (Anne Vernon) runs a little local shop and is desperately in need of money to save her business. A rich man (Marc Michel) walks into the shop, falls in love with the daughter and begins a slow, indirect process that might lead to a proposal of marriage. Genevieve has eyes only for Guy, but he is drafted for two years by the army. And although they pledge to love each other forever, she receives only one letter from him in two months.
Meanwhile, almost inevitably, Genevieve finds she is pregnant. The rich man proposes, is told of this development and offers to marry Genevieve anyway and raise the child as their own. And then there is an epilogue, in which Guy returns to the town, discovers what has happened, turns to drink and dissolution, and then is rescued by Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the young woman who was the companion for Guy's aunt and has secretly loved him for a long time. The very last scene, of a final meeting between Guy and Genevieve, is one of such poignancy that it's amazing the fabric of a musical can support it.
I had forgotten many of the details of the story in the 32 years since first seeing it; my mental images were of smiling garage mechanics and Catherine Deneuve happily singing with her lover. The film is incomparably richer and more moving than that. And although the idea of having the actors sing (or, more exactly, lip-sync) every single line might sound off-putting, it's surprising how quickly we accept it.
"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" did not initiate a new movie style (although Demy tried it again in "The Young Girls of Rochefort," in 1967, with Deneuve, her sister Francoise Dorleac and Gene Kelly). But it is remembered as a bold original experiment, and now that it is restored and back in circulation, it can also be remembered as a surprisingly effective film, touching and knowing and, like Deneuve, ageless.
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, 2nd April 2004.
Cherbourg 'Umbrellas' Arrives Here.
A CINEMATIC CONFECTION so shiny and sleek and sugar-sweet—so studiously sentimental—it comes suspiciously close to a spoof is neatly dished up in Jacques Demy's brightly colored French musical film, "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), which opened last night at the Little Carnegie.Seldom in my recollection has a French moviemaker indulged in such a flow of romantic contrivance and sheer decorative artifice as does Mr. Demy in this picture, which won the grand prize at the Cannes festival last spring.Not only has he resurrected the quaint and artificial device of having the dialogue set to music and unrealistically sung, but he uses this operatic method to tell a story that is so banal—so clearly ingenuous and old-fashioned that it wouldn't get beyond a reader in Hollywood.It is just too cute and cosy—a singing fellow and a singing girl, he a pretty garage mechanic and she the pretty daughter of the proprietor of an umbrella shop in the bustling seaport of Cherbourg. They are in love and want to get married, but can't because her hard-headed mother thinks they are too young. (They are, too. She is only 16 and he hasn't turned 21.)"Oh, mama," sings the tearful daughter, "You don't know how unhappy I am!" And Mama replies, con affetto, "I, too, have loved. You should forget him.""Never" the girl replies.But she does have to learn to forget him after he has been drafted and gone away to serve with the army in Algeria and she has discovered she is bearing his child, as a consequence of the tender surrender she makes to him before he goes. Desperate when she doesn't hear from him, she follows her mother's stern advice and agrees to marry a jewelry merchant who will happily have her in her shockingly obvious state.Back comes the lad from the army, finds his love has flown, grieves and then buys a gasoline station with the inheritance left him by his godmother when she dies. It's a nice, shiny Esso station, identified by several evident signs, and he runs it successfully with the young woman, his godmother's nurse, whom he marries on the rebound.Comes Christmas Eve, three years later. The Esso station is gleaming in the snow, and a Mercedes-Benz bearing a woman and a child pulls up. Its occupants are — guess who? You've got it! And if you want to know what happens then, you can go see the film or, from your own mind, draw the corniest ending for a sentimental plot you can conceive.The décor, on the whole, is handsome, but it is not as interestingly used as it should be in a picture that is largely atmosphere. What happens to the umbrellas after the introductory scene? And why no profound precipitation? It came down harder in "Singin' in the Rain."Likewise, the music, while melodic, tends to monotony. Michel Legrand writes a good song, but he can't sustain a whole score with a few thin themes. And Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, while attractive and touching as the love-struck youths, give stock performances in their stock roles—and their singing (if it is their singing) is as frail as reeds.The other performers are conventional—Anne Vernon as the mother of the girl, Mireille Perray as the fellow's godmother and Ellen Farner as the nurse.It might be noted by the "in" group that Marc Michel as the man who marries the girl is a character carried over from "Lola," which was Mr. Demy's one previous feature film. This literary coincidence doesn't add a thing to the film.As Noël Coward once said, it is surprising how potent cheap music can be, and there is, beyond any question, a certain emotional potency in this film. The fact that it is in French (with English subtitles) adds a bit of flavor to it, too. But along towards the end—and, especially, when those Esso signs flash on the screen—it begins to seem like one long singing commercial. That's a thought: maybe it is.
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 17th December 1964.