Demy’s musical is a sublime confection, now on Criterion Blu-Ray.
Jacques Demy’s classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the best kind of visual feast. Bright pastel and primary colors surround the intimate world the filmmaker creates in the town of Cherbourg, as characters sing their conversations with each other. His film is an homage to studio-era movie musicals while being a wholly original work. Why throw distracting breaks for talking into the mix, when all the dialogue can be sung?
In this manner, the French director’s 1964 film shares more in common with opera. The performers communicate in accompanied recitative — sung speech. The actors are all dubbed with voices of singers performing the jazzy music of composer Michel Legrand. There are no big dance numbers here.
Legrand’s regret-laden lover’s theme recurs during the acts of the film, from our introduction to the young couple, through their separation and their meeting again years later. Demy infuses the initial act of his film with a dreamy nostalgia for youth, as gas station attendant Guy (Nino Castelnuevo) and shopgirl Genevieve (Catherine Denueve) celebrate their love and prepare for Guy’s upcoming military service. After months apart, the second act shows Genevieve begin to doubt their connection while Guy is in Algeria. The third act sees Guy return from the war in northern Africa a changed man.
Demy explicitly admitted (see the documentary included in the Criterion BluRay release) that the aim of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is “to make people cry.” His thematic decisions support this: the film shows the tenuous nature of first love, the challenge of romance between different economic classes, the lasting effects of war on those who serve (and those they leave behind at home), and the limited options for teenage mothers of its time. What may appear on surface level as a frothy delicacy touches on subjects steeped in reality. Which isn’t to say that Demy’s film won’t leave a smile on the viewer’s face… but it may be one slightly tinged with melancholy.
Criterion’s recent BluRay release includes the digital restoration previously available on DVD. The colors in this restored version pop off the screen; the loose parallels between the costuming and loud wallpaper prints are even more obvious in this digital print.
Other features in this Criterion release include:
- A 2008 documentary about the making of the film
- A 2014 interview with film scholar Rodney Hill about the place of Demy’s film in the New Wave and the more traditional style of French filmmaking
- A 1964 TV interview show with Demy and composer Legrand
- Audio interviews with actress Catherine Deneuve, as well as Legrand, at London’s National Film Theatre
- A short video about the restoration process used