I have already said that I love Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but I must admit: before I re-watched it recently as part of The Criterion Collection’s new The Essential Jacques Demy boxset, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t like it as much as I once did. From what I remembered, it was a relatively simple story and I don’t like musicals as much these days as I used to (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, famously, entirely sung). Was I merely vulnerable when I last saw it over a decade ago? No. If anything, I underrated it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has expanded. I see now that it is ever expanding. The film’s edges are porous; it cannot contain all of the ghosts — ghosts that materialize due to absence, due to chance, due to choices not taken, due to the intractability of time — that roam the streets of Cherbourg.
So I was wrong about it being a simple film. However, the overarching narrative is relatively simple. It’s 1957, and there are two young lovers coming of age in Cherbourg: twenty-year-old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and seventeen-year-old Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve, in her breakout role). In the first act, we see the blossoming of their young love as they go on dates to the opera and sing about their future. But then, tragedy: they are painfully separated when Guy is drafted for military service in Algeria, leaving Geneviève pregnant after their one night of passion right before his departure. When Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) finds out, she wants the best for her daughter and tries to persuade her to marry the sensible, wealthy Roland Cassard, whom we know from Demy’s debut film, Lola. When Guy’s letters become few and far between, Geneviève does marry Roland. Guy returns a few years later devastated, and yet he finds a degree of comfort in an old friend, Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who was his godmother’s caretaker. Guy and Madeleine marry. In the film’s coda, Guy and Geneviève run into each other in 1963. Each have completely different lives than what they’d initially imagined, and the film ends at Christmas-time while Guy plays in the snow with his young son.
A relatively simple narrative about a first love doomed to dissipate as the two lovers get swept away by life. However, the film — due to its score, due to its mise-en-scène — is much more nuanced and haunted than my summary suggests. We may walk away wondering whether Guy and Geneviève have ended up happy, depending on our mood at the time; though the film revels in the emotional rapture brought on by first love, it is decidedly ambivalent when it comes to the consequences. Maybe Guy and Geneviève have actually ended up in the best possible world, or, at least, one more comfortable and secure than the one they were on track to create together. Or maybe not. The point is that either way they will be haunted always by chance, by other lives they could have lived that make them question the one they inhabit.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of Cherbourg:
For a film as notoriously colorful, this shot comes as a surprise, with its drab yellows and browns. Michel Legrand’s score is a bit somber as well. The camera slips downward, straight onto the street from above, and rain begins to fall. People walk below, going about their lives. With the score, we wonder what kinds of mundane tasks they are overcoming — or maybe they’re succumbing. But colors start to pop out:
We are about to enter an idyll. The colors will be bold, flamboyant, not entirely realistic. After all, the two lovers are not, at this point, affected by the day-to-day struggle. They live for the moments they see each other. Here is the beautiful Geneviève, waving from her mother’s boutique as Guy comes by after his work at the garage.
They feel their lives are just beginning, though from humble roots. They’re even able to romanticize the fact that Guy always smells of gasoline, a perfume like any other. Young love is often imperturbable by economic inevitabilities, among other struggles. For her part, Geneviève works in her mother’s struggling boutique, an umbrella shop. Her mother is tender and genuinely wants what’s best for her daughter, which, to her mind, is more than Guy can offer. Now, before anyone goes on thinking the mother is pushy and overbearing, it’s important to note that the mother is also incredibly sympathetic to Geneviève’s need for love.
The next step is made for the couple, though. It doesn’t matter what they want or what Geneviève’s mother thinks best. When Guy is drafted he says that they’ll have to put off talking about the future for later.
For the next several minutes, Legrand’s fabulous love theme swells and fades, as Guy and Geneviève promise they will be together again, and stronger. But they also admit their fears. Geneviève in particular realizes she is the one being left behind and that Guy will meet other women while away.
The moment for departure comes, and Deneuve breaks my heart every time as she sings: “My love. I will wait for you all my life.” She cannot stop herself from also begging him not to go, to stay, because: “Je ne peux pas. Je ne peux pas. Je ne peux pa.” I cannot.
But she can. She does. And she’s genuinely surprised: “I would have died for him. So why aren’t I dead?” Her life goes on, despite Guy’s tangible absence.
I believe absence is a major theme in the film. Idylls, however momentary, have a way of taking up physical space in our lives, and the first act is a long idyll filled with tender moments, like this one:
It isn’t even a few minutes later that Demy shows us the same space, with no one there.
There’s an absence, in a place so recently lived in. The past is already irretrievable.
We get other shots of absence, including ones that showcase the porous border of this film. As I mentioned above, we again meet Roland Cassard, the forlorn protagonist in Lola, where we saw him lose his own first love. Here is where he first sees Geneviève off screen. He cannot take his eyes off her:
In Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Roland is a successful jewel merchant, and we may question his motives as he becomes friendly with Geneviève’s mother. He wants to help this widowed woman and her daughter, so he plans to step in and marry Geneviève. He is at least empathetic enough to understand Geneviève’s reluctance and he sings about Lola. Here’s the set of Lola, up in Nantes, where Roland and Lola met up again after years and where he realized he was losing her. It’s empty:
When Guy’s letters stop coming with any regularity, Geneviève thinks she’s lost him. But it’s not just that. She’s caught up in her own life that has kept going despite Guy’s departure. Economic realities and social expectations eventually carry her to marriage.
In another fantastic moment where the film’s border breaks down, Geneviève looks at us through the camera. She knows we know she’s forsaking her first love, something she promised she wouldn’t do. She asks us not to judge. She asks what we would have done.
And what would we have done? Sacrificed security for herself and her child to stay faithful to an idyll that is already in the past? Time is passing, the music goes on, decisions must be made. The other routes through life necessarily cease to exist, other than in our heads.
The film then forces us to suffer through an absence. Geneviève is essentially gone through the entire third act. So are the colors. The film really does feel barren when Guy returns from the military, injured and bitter. He goes to all the usual channels to find something to fill up his emptiness.
As I mentioned above, things do turn out okay for both Guy and Geneviève. Guy finds loyalty and a reason to excel. Geneviève, when we see her again, is dressed nicely, so we know she’s got security.
What we don’t know is whether anyone — Guy, Geneviève, or their respective spouses — is happy. Life has pushed them, in some ways, to these corners. Safe corners, sure, but they’ve ended up there by chance as much as by choice. They say they are well. Maybe they are. The film doesn’t let us know. Instead, we get a subversive zoom away from Guy and his son, playing in the snow. And what shows up on the screen as we zoom away? Flashing, red warning lights.
What are we being warned against? The serenity of this final scene? Forsaking first love? I’m not sure, but I think it mostly warns us to withhold judgment. These are people, like any of us, not altogether good or bad, and this is just where they ended up. They’re making the best of it, for better or for worse. Yes, there was an idyll. It’s gone now, and maybe what has come in its wake is even better — at the very least, it’s not too bad. I don’t know if this makes me happy or sad.
This disc is loaded with supplements.
Once Upon a Time . . . The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a 2008 documentary, directed by Marie Genin and Serge July. It runs 55 minutes and features a variety of interviews, including some from Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand. It was great to hear how these two collaborated to create the film that just affected me so much (their goal all along). It was also wonderful to see Legrand sitting at a piano while being interviewed, just popping out the tunes on request. The documentary is more broad that just those two, also going into the film’s place in the context of world events.
The disc also features an 11-minute excerpt of another episode of the French television show Cinépanorama, in which Demy and Legrand talk about the decision to make the entire film a musical. We hear more from Legrand in a 27-minute audio interview from 1991 at the National Film Theatre in London, in which he talks about his career as a whole. We also have an 11-minute audio interview with Deneuve at the same Theatre, but recorded in 1983.
As the film was restored (and it looks fantastic), there is a restoration demonstration that runs 6 minutes. The set closes with a trailer and an essay from Jim Ridley, entitled “A Finite Forever.”
Exceptional package all around this even more exceptional film. I’ve been saying this set is worth it all along, and I hope this shows even better than I mean every word of that recommendation.
There is also a 23-minute interview with film scholar Rodney Hill, who talks primarily about the French New Wave and Demy’s place within it.