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Middle-class Aneurysm in Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) November 27, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cine Europa, European Films, French Spring, Musical.


Original Title: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
Directed by Jacques Demy
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon

It’s funny imagining a world where everyone sings what he wants to say, even the most mundane exchange of words, the trivial expressions of sanctitude, or life’s awful miseries. What if we speak our lines to the tune of different musicians every day? Today we have Philip Glass, tomorrow Mozart, the next week Liszt, next month Schubert, and so on; a mad world I foresee but how lovely! Having seen one, for an hour and a half in a setting that spans five war years, it is unmistakably hilarious.

I would lie if I say that I enjoyed this film. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is certainly a classic, much to the hype of the supporters of this musical is perpetuating, but its timelessness is arguable. I must admit however that its crowning glory is Catherine Deneuve — her youthful flair that is very much impossible not to notice. Her inimitable career and rise to stardom deserves admiration, considering the overwhelming brilliance she had in her latter films: Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Tristana, The Last Metro, and even up to Dancer in the Dark. In this film, she shines effortlessly and radiates with oozing personality that it would be a sin just to forget her name. In a bleak, cloudless night, she twinkles — and we respond with admiration in return.

Must be the DVD copy in this year’s festival — I am expecting a blast both in my eyes and ears: the stunning credits sequence and Michel Legrand’s enchanting musical accompaniment. After a few minutes, I wish I have seen it at home instead, and if only I have the contact number of the French Embassy I would tell them to lend us the 35mm copy like what the Swedish Embassy did in Fanny and Alexander. But then — I’m calling myself a fool this time — it was them who lent Shangri-la the DVD.

On the other hand, what struck me most is the dialogue, particularly the conversation between Geneviève (Deneuve) and her mother (played by Anne Vernon). So it goes like this:

Madame Emery: Where were you?
Geneviève: With Guy.
Madame Emery: What were you doing?
Geneviève: Mother, he’s leaving. He’ll be away for two years. I can’t live without him. I’ll die.
Madame Emery: Stop crying. Look at me. People only die of love in movies.

Then afterward,

Geneviève: I’m pregnant, Mother.
Madame Emery: Pregnant by Guy? This is horrible! How is it possible?
Geneviève: Well, just like with everybody.
Madame Emery: Don’t joke. This is serious. What are we going to do?
Geneviève: What do you mean?
Madame Emery: What are we going to do with the child?
Geneviève: Raise it.
Madame Emery: What are we going to say?
Geneviève: To whom?
Madame Emery: Our friends, our neighbors!
Geneviève: We have no friends, and you never speak to the neighbors.
Madame Emery: And Roland Cassart is coming to dinner tonight!
Geneviève: You don’t need to tell him.

It was Luis Buñuel who mastered the craft of poking fun at the bourgeoisie — the middle-class who have nothing in their minds but status and how they look, what if I have my hair fixed? do I need to have my nails done? is that make-up you’re using much better than the one I have? and perhaps to them having the same clothes is the most awful thing in the world. Buñuel did it in such supreme jest I would want to be his disciple. In a particular scene, Madame Emery realizes that she has a huge debt to pay and exclaims to Geneviève, My God! We are ruined! What will we do? Should I have my hair done? Whether Demy is consciously attacking the mindset of his mother character — her reactionary behavior to be exact — it is done very subtly as if he condones it, and it adds a remarkable texture to the tenacity of his most popular work. The bourgeois culture exists side by side with criticism, which can be seen in various forms of art not only in cinema, and nevertheless the idea has remained universal — idiocy and idiosyncracy aside — that vested on them is a huge amount of social power and political influence; the only way to show them our remorse, for whatever reason that is, is have them ridiculed — the nastiest way we can — and it deems so effective that contemporary comedies harbor in satire, sarcasm, and predominantly, the jack-ass type of humor, and their audience is responding quite well. Closing this hallucination in accordance with the first sentence, whether it happens by incidence or otherwise, Buñuel directs Deneuve three years after in the tenaciously beautiful, Belle de Jour.

A carnival of love’s elusive nature — the effervescence of romance — rolls in manic fervor one can’t help but laugh on its sheer hilarity. Once you get used to the lines being sung, it’s easy to forget that Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical — beyond those solitary hues and falling graffiti, by a thousand miles, this is a comedy. * * *



1. Oggs Cruz - December 1, 2007

Nice Chard, very balanced review. I admit, I adore this film (but because I saw it on DVD unprojected, thus the colors and everything else remained intact). I especially liked how its real and unreal at the same time; everybody’s singing (even the most insignificant of dialogue is sung and seriously, Legrand’s melodies can be quite arbitrary) but the plot’s progression is very unromantic and realistic, and as you’ve mentioned, very critical of the middle-class. It’s quite enjoyably nuts. Chard, I urge you to see “The Young Girls of Rochefort” which I believe is much much better than this.

2. lilokpelikula - December 1, 2007

thanks oggs — very nice to hear that from you.

how many times have i used the word hilarious? haha, even bonjour, merci and comment ça va are sung. i liked the ending in particular — i thought they would end up as lovers again, leaving their families and all — and somehow demy managed to produce a film that is very intact.

sure, i’ll check out Young Girls of Rochefort. (lord, they don’t even have a copy of it here at alliance) is it the one with deneuve and her sister?

3. John Santos - January 4, 2008

Sir, do check out Lola and Bay of Angels. These aren’t as trippy as Umbrellas (which is the epitome of “if you cannot walk, dance; if you cannot talk, sing”), but they still contain Demy’s overflowing and overly grandiose cinematic style which I think is an epiphany when viewed alongside Godard’s equally playful films during the same time frame.

And Bunuel may have mastered the bourgeois caricature, but Demy has mastered the humanist consideration. In terms of who is more fun to watch, Bunuel is only worth the time if you feel like hating the world.

4. lilokpelikula - January 5, 2008

Noted, sir. I only wish I could get hold of those films you mentioned. In any case once I’ve seen them I’ll make sure to write my thoughts about them too. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

As for Bunuel, I think his angst is well-founded and inimitably funny — funny enough to drop me dead while watching it. His boldness and frankness which may seem to you as bourgeois caricature, are, I believe, some of the most interesting facets in cinema I’ve seen. And I guess nothing’s wrong with hating the world — loving it would not make it less bearable.

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