Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jacques Demy | Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

picture perfect
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Demy (writer and director), Michel Legrand (composer) Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) / 1964
I first saw Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg upon its original release in 1964, and I recall enjoying it; I have seen it a couple of other times since, again taking in its sentimentality—the director himself admits to his attempt to bring people to tears at the film’s end—without bothering to consider whether or not to this film had anything serious to say.

This time around, however, the film not only brought tears to my eyes, but, particularly in its beautifully restored condition, affected me on a much deeper level. Certainly in 1964, with the US involvement in Viet Nam, I must have perceived that the central couple’s (Geneviève and Guy, played by photogenic
Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo) problems are very much related to France’s involvement during the years that the film documents (1957-1963) in Algeria. Perhaps I had not recognized, however, that Demy, in fact, structured his film around the war, divided as it is into the chapters: “The Departure,” “The Absence,” and “The Return.” It is, indeed, the hero’s uncontrollable “absence” during his girlfriend’s pregnancy that destroys their relationship, pushing them both into marriages with loving but less adventurous companions—in Geneviève’s case, the jeweler Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) and in Guy’s case, his aunt’s caretaker, Madeleine (Ellen Farner).

     I also perceived, perhaps for the first time, that their relationship was doomed because of the shopkeeper mother’s bourgeois values. As one of Demy’s friends tells us in a short film about the making of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a woman who is the daughter of a shopkeeper does not marry a mechanic in the provinces, where Cherbourg lies. And Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), Geneviève’s mother, makes it quite clear that she is opposed to her daughter marrying Guy.

     Indeed, as the mother argues, Geneviève, perhaps, is much younger that she supposes herself to be. Certainly she does not have the resolve needed to bear Guy’s slowness in writing letters along with the pressures of bearing a fatherless child. Her mother’s pressure for her to marry the wealthy Roland wins out over even her own feelings; and her ignorance what it is like to be at war, leads her believe that Guy is no longer serious in the relationship. Geneviève chooses a passivist route, declaring she will marry Roland if he accepts her being pregnant. Being a reasonable and kind man, who is very much in love with the girl, Roland easily wins her over.

     In a sense, accordingly, the tears that fall at the end of this sad tale are rather pointless. Both Guy and Geneviève are perhaps better off with the mates they have finally chosen or have been chosen for them. Yet we sense in that touching last scene—acted out in the cleanest and brightest of Esso stations ever in existence—that Geneviève is, as the French might say, somewhat trist, a bit resigned by her fate, and that Guy, particularly in his refusal to see his daughter, waiting in the car, and his statement to Geneviève that it is time for her to go, that he still feels some bitterness. 
     A moment later, however, both turn to their children with obvious joy and pleasure, so that we know that any grieving they feel is a passing feeling. Indeed, like so many of Demy’s films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, logically speaking, ends quite happily.

      Perhaps our tears emanate not so much from the resultant lives of the two major characters, but the exquisiteness with which their earlier love was portrayed. To me, it now appears, the true wonder of Demy’s work is not its fragile story nor the soap-opera emotions its characters call up, but the sheer perfection of the fantasy world that Demy has created.
     In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Demy has whipped up a Hollywood-like operetta that even outdoes Stanley Donen’s and Gene Kelly’s lavish spectaculars. If Demy appears to be blind to the wonders of dance, he makes up for it with a wonderful eye for color and, along with designer Bernard Evelin, an on-spot sense of set decoration. Michel Legrand’s lush chords and easy to assimilate melodies, with its occasional jazz interpolations, demand even less from the listener than do composers like Gershwin, Loewe, or Bernstein. Despite the oddness of a full operatic film, Demy’s work seems so perfectly artificed that we do not for a moment think it unusual.

      The work is so grandly theatrical that it doesn’t even matter, at moments, that the two lovers float down streets without even moving their feet; or that, because all actors had lip-sync the pre-recorded score, their movements were so precisely timed, they were allowed no opportunity for improvisation; or, finally, that in that last scene Geneviève’s self-described “detour”  has taken her more than five hours in the opposite direction from where she has begun her trip. The Cherbourg of Demy’s opera is not any more real that the plastic model of the toy Esso station that Guy keeps in his bedroom. In short, in Demy’s world everything, even the raindrops, are as carefully timed as the tears Deneuve admits she found difficult to produce as Guy’s train pulls away. No matter, we cry in her place, not so much out of sadness for the events of the story I believe, but because we have to go back now to the real world.

Los Angeles, November 15, 2015

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