Film Review

60 Years of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

todayFebruary 22, 2024 35

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By – Nick Adrian

For fans of musicals, bright cinematography, and the French New Wave

By the early 1960s, the movie musical had started to run its course. Gone were the days of MGM’s elaborate Busby Berkley productions and Warner Brother’s Technicolor fantasies – what was once arguably one of cinema’s most popular genres was slowly dwindling. However, in France a group of young filmmakers were making “waves” over their heavy output of American-inspired cinematic tour-de-forces (who would, in turn, go on to influence American filmmaking themselves). Later dubbed the French New Wave movement, one of its most singular and unique auteurs was Jacques Demy who had already made a name for himself with 1961’s whimsical Lola and 1963’s Jeanne Moreau-starring The Bay of Angels.

His true breakthrough and one of his most lasting efforts was 1964’s brightly-colored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring Nino Castelnuovo and a fresh-faced Catherine Deneuve. Its story is simple: a young girl named Geneviève who works in her mother’s umbrella shop is desperately in love with a young boy named Guy who works as an auto mechanic. Their love is thwarted when Guy is drafted to serve in the Algerian War for two years. While he’s away, Geneviève must choose between waiting for her true love or settling for a more traditional yet stable life.

While the plot itself is mundane and slice-of-life, its execution is anything but. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a sung-through musical beautifully composed by Michel Legrand, where every piece of dialogue is sung throughout its runtime. Its set design takes Hollywood’s Technicolor dreamscapes and runs with it, every single location and room more brightly-colored than the last. It’s a fantastical facade, giving the care-free illusion that the northern French city is a magical spectacle while its realities are just as dire and mundane as the real world. It seems to be a comment on adolescent love, the consequences of war does to its society’s members, and the inevitable differences between the dream of cinema and the harsh actuality of every day life.

Despite its appearance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an emotional, heavy film. However its success and legacy has stood the test of time, garnering accolades, English-language stage adaptations, and an influence still seen in contemporary films such as La La Land and Barbie. In short, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg still packs an musical punch sixty years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival – and will carry on for years to come.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Max, and Kanopy.

Written by: Nick Adrian

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