The Umbrellas of
Directed by Jacques Demy
There’s a surprising intelligence to the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that didn’t really present itself until the very last scene of the film. Demy and others working on this film seem to sense that musicals are best when painting topics in huge, sweeping and melodramatic strokes. At the beginning of the film, we see the young love struck mechanic, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) mention that he loves movies more than opera. The songs get on his nerves. Well, here’s a film that seems to have just as much, if not more, in common with operas than musicals—and yet, the music got on my nerves!
Musicals break into song throughout mostly to enhance the emotional tone of the film rather than the storyline. Do we really learn anything new in any of the songs in The Sound of Music or West Side Story? No, but we do understand how the characters feel through their songs (Something’s Coming, Climb Every Mountain, etc.). The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is completely sung—not a word is spoken. There are absolutely no memorable songs simply because there are absolutely no individual songs. We hear a few melodies repeating themselves over and over with new dialogue. There’s no refrain or chorus in any songs. None are sung by more than one person. The music itself is very pretty, but very different than standard musicals. The music would fit better into a music box than a Broadway show.
Musicals really only work when we get situations that are larger than life. The Umbrellas of Cherborg tells a little story which would be completely overshadowed by big production numbers. The film uses the singing in the film in simple and straightforward ways, which allows it to work with the story. So is the singing really necessary? I’d argue yes since it makes the movie almost dreamlike. We get rare glimpses of the ethereal including a sequence where the couple in love floats down a street rather than walking. The whole film feels like we are floating through it.
Love is of course very emotional and dramatic. The world simply feels different when you are in love. The film captures this beautifully. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is really the first musical that I’ve seen to use music to make a film more intimate rather than more extravagant.
While I appreciate the purpose of the music, I was put off by it at times. I don’t speak French so to me it unfortunately sounded like sounds sung to melody. Also, I felt there was a lack of sophistication in the music direction. All of the notes are written so that both men and women could sing them in their own register. This means that the man doesn’t have to jump up an octave to sing the same notes as the woman. The woman can sing an octave higher than the man and still be able to hit the notes with no problem. This is good in theory, except that the songs were simply on the high side for the women, which made them come off a little screechy and unpleasant. Unfortunately, most of the singing in the movie is by women (the four female actresses--Catherine Deneuve, Anne Vernon, Ellen Farmer and Mirelle Perrey) all with similar sounding voices and all with the tendency to sound grating after a while. At one point, I lowered the volume a bit to avoid getting a headache. I couldn’t imagine watching this movie in a theater with surround sound. I cringe thinking about it.
Besides this qualm, the film is really beautiful and I love that the ending wasn’t exactly what we expected. It is not a fairy tale ending and yet, both lovers are presumably just fine. Also, the movie is worth seeing for the breathtaking use of color! This is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen. Whatever brand of paint was used in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg should mention this film in their advertising!