Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)
aka: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
A film directed by Jacques Demy

Genre: Musical / Romance

Film Review

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is one of cinema's most enduring romantic films, a shamelessly emotional hymn to love that is uplifting in its lyrical intensity and yet also devastatingly poignant.
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg 1964 pic 1
Through its emotionally charged music and vibrant colour photography it assails the senses like no other film and provides the most visceral of cinema experiences. No other musical can match it in its bitter evocation of the heartbreak that is known only to lovers who have had their dreams shattered by a cruel trick of fate, the tragedy of a love that must perish when it comes into contact with the brutal realities of existence. Director Jacques Demy gave us many beautiful works of cinema, but surely none is greater than this, his timeless masterpiece.

Demy's first colour film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg had a long and difficult gestation, and it could have ended up a very different film if producer Georges de Beauregard had got his way.
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg 1964 pic 2
Demy first had the idea for the film (originally titled La Belle amour) immediately after completing his first film, Lola, in 1961. Beauregard agreed to finance the film, providing it was a low budget black and white production, without any musical numbers. Fortunately, Demy was so wedded to the idea of making a full-blown homage to the classical Hollywood musical that he declined the offer and instead made La Baie des anges as he looked for another backer for his magnum opus. After a year of fruitless searching, Demy struck lucky when he was put in contact with Pierre Lazareff, the owner of the newspaper France Soir. Through Lazareff, Demy found two interested backers, the relatively inexperienced independent producer Mag Bodard and 20th Century Fox. With additional funds from advance sales in Germany, Demy managed to raise the money he needed to make the film, although it was a paltry sum compared with the budget of comparable Hollywood productions.

In his youth, Jacques Demy had been a great fan of American musicals and one of the things that motivated him to become a filmmaker was an intense desire to attempt a homage to the genre. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg clearly shows the influence of the great Hollywood musicals, in particular Stanley Donen's Singin in the Rain (1952). Demy also drew inspiration from films by two European directors he greatly admired, Max Ophüls and Robert Bresson: Lola Montès (1955) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945).

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg 1964 pic 3
Having worked successfully with Demy on Lola and La Baie des anges, Michel Legrand was the obvious choice to compose the score for Demy's third feature. As it turned out, what Legrand delivered was to become one of the most iconic scores in film history, one that was heavily influenced by contemporary jazz and broke new ground in the way it starkly counterpoints the mundanity of everyday life. Demy's concept from the outset had been a popular opera, and so his film has not only the classic three act structure but also the quirk that every line of dialogue is set to music. This allowed him to use professional singers to dub each of the actors throughout, but the downside was that his cast had to work hard to achieve a near-perfect lip synchronisation with the pre-recorded soundtrack. The film's success established Legrand's international reputation and allowed him to make his mark in Hollywood. The composer remained faithful to Demy and worked with him on an even more ambitious tribute to the Hollywood musical, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), and the über-kitsch fairytale Peau d'âne (1970).

Jacques Demy had long decided who would play the lead female role in his film, the 19-year-old Catherine Deneuve, having seen her in Jacques-Gérard Cornu's L'Homme à femmes (1960). Deneuve had made her screen debut at the age of 14 in André Hunebelle's Les Collégiennes and was a virtual unknown at the time. Her role in Demy's film would make her an overnight star, both in France and around the world, which is ironic as she was on the point of giving up acting before she met Demy. Deneuve repaid the director by starring in three of his subsequent films, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Peau d'âne and L'Événement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la lune (1973), by which time she was firmly established as one of France's most prolific and best-known film actresses.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg 1964 pic 4
Playing opposite the stunningly beautiful teenage Deneuve is an actor who is almost as implausibly photogenic, the Italian Nino Castelnuovo. Like Deneuve, Castelnuovo was a relative newcomer to cinema, although he had distinguished himself in a supporting role in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960). Whilst his subsequent career was nowhere near as starry as Deneuve's, Castelnuovo enjoyed a long and active career, mostly on Italian television. Marc Michel reprised the role of Roland Cassard, which he had previously played in Lola. Demy had hoped to hire Danielle Darrieux for the part of Deneuve's mother, but budgetary restrictions led him to settle for a lesser star, Anne Vernon, who is best known for her collaborations with Jacques Becker. The attractive principal cast is completed by Ellen Farner, who was imposed on Demy by the German distributors, and Mireille Perrey, a veteran of French comedies that date back to the early 1930s.

Beneath its rose-scented sugary artifice, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg contains a bleak and authentic portrait of contemporary France. The harsh realities of the time are very much a part of the fabric of the film, be it in the overt references to the Algerian War, or the social stigma attached to childbirth outside of wedlock. This was one of the first French films to refer directly to the War in Algeria, a subject that was pretty well taboo at the time and remained so for the next two decades. It was only a year since the censors had finally allowed Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit soldat to be released, having banned it outright in 1960 for its supposedly subversive content. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg was first seen in France in February 1964, eighteen months after Algeria gained independence from France, and there is no doubt that it struck a nerve, reminding a nation of the war it desperately wanted to forget and of the sacrifice it had borne for a futile cause.

It wasn't just the film's subject matter that made it a huge gamble. The musical was a genre that was pretty well unheard of in French cinema and it was far from certain that audiences would respond favourably to Demy's opéra populaire. (Demy even appears to anticipate a mass rejection of the film in its opening scene). The fact that all of the dialogue is sung makes Les Parapluies de Cherbourg a particular rarity. It was an experiment that Demy only repeated once, for his 1982 film Une chambre en ville (1982), but this was not a commercial success.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg 1964 pic 5
The film was a gamble but it paid off handsomely: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg was Jacques Demy's most commercially successful film. In France alone, it attracted an audience of 1.3 million, and it went on to become an international hit. Critically acclaimed, it won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1963 and the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Festival de Cannes. It was also nominated for five Oscars - for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1965, and for its screenplay and music in 1966, although it failed to win an award. Two of the film's numbers - I Will Wait For You (the haunting main theme) and Watch What Happens (Cassard's story) - became worldwide hits, interpreted by such well-known artistes as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, with English lyrics by Normal Gimbel. In 1970, Sheldon Harnick produced a stage version of the film, performed in Paris and New York, but this was not a great success.

By the early 1980s, the colour film had degraded so badly that it was virtually unscreenable. Fortunately, Demy had had the foresight to made black and white separations of the original Eastman print and, in the 1990s, his wife, Agnès Varda, was able to use these to recreate the vibrant colour print of the film as Demy had conceived it. For this restoration, Michel Legrand contributed an improved score. Now restored to its former glory, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg dazzles with its vitality and stings with its emotional power, the most exquisite ode to love cinema has given us. Fifty years after it was made, in that halcyon summer of 1963, it still has what it takes to move an audience and transform a combat-hardened paratrooper into a blubbering heap of blancmange. Only those with a heart made of the hardest granite can hope to get through the unbearably cruel final scene without shedding a tear. As they say in France, n'oubliez pas votre mouchoir...
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

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France, 1957. Geneviève is a 17 year-old girl who works in her mother's umbrella shop in Cherbourg...
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Film Credits

Directed by Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat, Bernard Fradet
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