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Thirty-two years after its release, writer-director Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains a booby trap for reviewers. Not only because the movie is simultaneously poetic and platitudinous, but because Demy’s recklessly stylized direction is responsible for his pop operetta’s most enchanting and most grating moments. When premiered in 1964, the film was variously lauded—it won the grand prize at Cannes and five Oscar nominations—and dismissed; the current reissue in a freshly restored print will surely revive debate about Umbrellas’ merits.
Demy’s screenplay couldn’t be simpler. Teenage Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), whose mother (Anne Vernon) runs a Cherbourg umbrella shop, loves Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a young auto mechanic who lives with his elderly Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey.) Before they can marry, Guy is drafted for military service in Algeria, unaware that Genevieve is pregnant. Thinking that Guy has forgotten her, she agrees to marry diamond merchant Roland (Marc Michel), a match encouraged by her anxious, debt-burdened mother. Wounded and embittered, Guy returns from the army and marries Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the young woman who nursed his deceased aunt. The couple have a son and, using his aunt’s inheritance, Guy buys a gas station. Several years later, on a snowy Christmas Eve, Genevieve and her daughter pull into the service station and the erstwhile lovers share a brief, bittersweet reunion.
With its familiar echoes of Marcel Pagnol’s ’30s Marius, Fanny, and Cesar trilogy (previously adapted as a Broadway musical and Hollywood melodrama), Demy’s stripped-down narrative serves as a vehicle for cinematic stylization. Every line of dialogue is sung. Michel Legrand’s music and Demy’s lyrics were prerecorded by studio singers, then lip-synced by the actors as the cameras turned. Although Legrand’s score opens with a tricky, hurtling bop vocalese sequence and contains some sweeping melodies—notably the two “arias” known in English translation as “Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait for You”—the themes are excessively, sometimes numbingly reprised. And though there are flashes of self-reflexive wit in Demy’s lyrics, particularly at the beginning when one of Guy’s friends expresses his disdain for opera (“all that singing gives me a pain”), the spoony banalities mouthed by the moonstruck lovers are cloying, even by pop-music standards.
Similarly, Demy’s fervid visual style is a mixed blessing. Jean Rabier’s crisply defined photography and Bernard Evein’s intensely hued production design are ravishing. Demy repainted the French coastal town, transforming actual locations into the vibrant dreamworld of MGM musicals. The vivid wallpapers—blue and olive stripes for Aunt Elise’s apartment; a rose and sky blue floral pattern for Genevieve’s bedroom—tend to upstage what’s happening in front of them. The film’s new prints, struck from three-strip color negatives, are much bolder than the original American release version, which was made from a dupe negative. Perhaps a bit too bold. The glowing pastels of 1964 were arguably more satisfying than the garish, semi-psychedelic colors Demy favored.
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Limited to parroting alien voices and restricted by a screenplay unconcerned with psychological motivation, the actors, chosen for their physical beauty, are idealized mannequins. Twenty-year-old Deneuve, at the peak of her incomparable radiance, hints at the deceptive subtlety of her later collaborations with Polanski, Buñuel, and Truffaut. (Demy’s introductory shot of her, gazing at Guy through the umbrella shop window, elicited gasps from a Filmfest DC audience at the National Gallery several weeks ago.) Castelnuovo, whose subsequent screen career proved to be brief and undistinguished, is equally striking—trim, athletic, and darkly handsome. Vernon’s coquettish, cash-strapped mother, the screenplay’s most nuanced role, suits the actress’s mature good looks. She’s endearingly expressive in the scene where she tries to hock jewelry to Roland, a sequence based on the opening of Max Ophuls’ masterpiece Madame de…. (Demy dedicated his first feature, Lola, to Ophuls, and cast Danielle Darrieux, who starred in Madame de…, as Deneuve’s mother in his follow-up musical, 1967’s ill-fated—but to my mind more entertaining—The Young Girls of Rochefort.) Michel, the male lead in Lola, returns as an older, disillusioned incarnation of the loner he previously played. Demy’s master plan was to have the same actors and characters reappear in his films, an ambition thwarted by career problems in the ’70s and ’80s.
Although some moviegoers who dislike musicals have argued that Demy’s highly artificial style is intended as ironic or satirical, it’s clear from the film’s obsessive tone (as well as interviews the director gave in 1964) that every frame of Umbrellas expresses a profoundly personal vision. He attempts to distill the pure essence of the musical comedies he adored as a child: song, color, beauty, and romance. When his strategies work—the choreographed umbrellas under the title credits, the nostalgic tracking shot of the Nantes arcade that punctuates Roland’s aria about loving and losing Lola, the understated, melancholy coda with snow obliterating the hitherto supersaturated colors—the movie is stirring in surprisingly original ways. But when his devices misfire—the heavy-handed love scenes attenuated by vocalized dialogue, the swoonily ill-judged shot of the lovers gliding rather than walking down a street—one has to suppress the urge to cringe or snicker. Love it and/or hate it, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains, after a third of a century, one of the most idiosyncratic and audacious movies ever made, and should be seen by everyone seriously interested in the possibilities of narrative cinema.
The French New Wave, of which Demy was an important figure, opposed what Francois Truffaut called the “cinema de papa”—expensive, empty adaptations of prestigious literary classics. Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s The Horseman on the Roof is precisely the kind of movie they used to deride. Based on Jean Giono’s 1951 novel, this big-budget costume picture, set in cholera-plagued 1832 Provence, contains more scenery than Yellowstone National Park (to quote The Band Wagon), and more sick peasants than Czarist Russia. Rappeneau smothers Giono’s story under a blanket of culture sauce—wide-screen compositions imitating Corot, Millet, and Vermeer underscored by Mozart’s “German Dances” on solo clarinet. All this museumlike pictorialism—horse-drawn coaches, street carnivals with fireworks, field hands reaping golden wheat, villages strewn with vulture-plucked human carrion, women in white lace brandishing candelabras—is merely window dressing for a shallow, uncompelling action romance: Indiana Jones for the cappuccino set.
Screenwriters Rappeneau, Nina Companeez, and Jean-Claude Carriere take pains to establish the film’s historical backdrop but fail to explore it. Angelo Pardi (Olivier Martinez), a chivalrous Italian freedom-fighter, flees to France with his fellow revolutionaries to escape the Austrians, who have established a puppet monarchy in his homeland. Pursued by Austrian spies and threatened by the cholera epidemic devastating Provence, he’s sheltered by Pauline (Juliette Binoche), the young wife of an elderly French nobleman. Gallantly, he offers to escort her from her home in Manosque to Theus where she hopes to rejoin her husband. While dodging Italian assassins and French authorities enforcing a quarantine, the pair forge an emotional bond that remains unresolved at the film’s fade-out.
Despite Rappeneau’s attention to period detail, the narrative largely consists of standard costume-movie staples—swordplay alternating with foreplay—and more coincidental encounters than can be found in the collected works of Dickens. Angelo can’t travel more than a few meters without stumbling across a menacing Austrian blackguard or a long-lost Italian comrade. (Curious how effortlessly this outsider navigates the French Alps. While touring Provence last year, I couldn’t even locate a nearby village in less than a half-day, even with the assistance of my parents, sister, and a stack of road maps.) Very little about the movie feels fresh or immediate. The elaborate crowd scenes—towns filled with fever-wracked bodies, an ancient château transformed into a teeming quarantine holding pen—draw heavily on imagery pinched from vintage Victor Fleming and David Lean movies, and the comic setpiece—Angelo and Pauline’s unexpected arrival at an elegant dinner party inspiring hysteria among plague-fearing aristocrats—is as crudely written and broadly performed as a middle-school farce.
With his brooding eyes, pouty lips, pageboy hairdo, and beard stubble, Martinez looks more like a Calvin Klein model than a knightly patriot. A chilly, narcissistic actor, he seems less at ease defending Pauline than penning the letters to Mama that serve as the film’s cumbersome narration. Binoche, usually a cool customer herself, warms to her role and becomes almost feisty by the movie’s open-ended climax. Given the chasteness of the central relationship, Rappeneau is forced to do some fancy footwork to display her nude body—a Binoche trademark—but he’s rescued by an unexpected onset of disease. The stellar supporting cast includes Pierre Arditi and Jean Yanne, but the liveliest performance is given by a cat who, unfortunately, vanishes by the movie’s midpoint.
Like the current, inexplicable craze for visiting Provence—where $300 a day, exclusive of air fare and car rental, buys you glimpses of ruins, a second-rate hotel room, a decent bottle of wine, and something stewed with eggplant and garlic—The Horseman on the Roof offers too small a return for such a lavish investment. For all its flaws, Demy’s eccentric Umbrellas stirs the soul, while Rappeneau’s overproduced kitsch merely occupies screen space and leisure time, both of which might be better devoted to something more inspiring.CP