The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

| February 24, 2004

Demy’s whimsical yet serious-minded film is both innocent curio and document of nouvelle vague aspiration. A completely sung script at once unsettles the audience and distances them from the text in a Brechtian fashion, but also charms with its verve and ingenuousness. Starring the impossibly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, the film attempts to meld the emotional directness of opera with mundane concerns against the backdrop of the Algerian war. The film therefore attempts to wrestle “higher” art forms back to the ownership of the people, suggesting that the musical and the opera are not mutually exclusive. This is a 3-act La Boheme in provincial France, and is the forerunner to a variety of semi-operatic plays and conceits from Blood Brothers and Miss Saigon to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s famous “Once More, With Feeling” episode and even the more baroque flourishes of Baz Luhrmann.
Demy arranges his film in such a way to avoid accusations of camp or irony. The splashes of sharp primary colour amidst the rain are a motif for the films’ desire to make the mundane exotic and beautiful, but not arch. There is a great innocence about the film figured in Deneuve’s excited ingénue, full of joy and raw emotion. It is essentially conservative in tone (look after yourself, trust in your family, be good to each other), although there are brief comments upon the fragmentary social effects of the war in Algeria.
Apart from the central sung conceit, which introduces a dissonance that underscores the entirety of the film, there are brief experimental flourishes such as the introductory umbrella choreography and the frame-breaking looks to camera that Deneuve flashes about halfway through. There are powerful moments and lovely touches, although the film suffers from a lack of point — it is never clear exactly what we are meant to take away from it all (it lacks operatic trauma or comic conclusion) other than a jaunty air and a desire to sing your order in the pub afterwards. For that alone this film is well worth seeking out.

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