the umbrellas of cherbourg (1964)
One of the new wave's peak achievements was not only to experiment with new cinematic technique, but to use the critical eye to cut through what had congealed into cinematic pillars, deconstruct them, and build them back up in a purer form. Enter Jacques Demy and the movie musical. Cherbourg is a film that achieves rare formal perfection. By way of this intricately constructed form, however, the revelation of the apparatus is achieved. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is so hyper-designed, so operatic and so visually fluid, we are simultaneously swept away by the narrative and constantly acutely aware of the falseness of the images in front of us. Demy's direction of the picture cannot be understated, it defies description and reaches the point of pure visual and audible harmony. The understanding and tactical employment of musical tropes is so visible that our resulting awareness of them is what characterizes the tone for much of the film. The complete unreality coupled with the unconventional realism of its storyline create its unique blend of distanciation. In this way, Demy satisfies the emotional desires of the audience while also disrupting their ability to fully engage with the material at the subconscious level. By creating an operetta, Demy lets go of all hinting at a naturalistic, realist cinema and enters the level of pure fiction. Nowhere in this dance are we even given the opportunity to interpret the events as being true to life, and yet, the narrative is a realist look at love, loss, moving on and living past our idealistic imaginings of how life will be. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells us of love under circumstance, including all of the elements of life that could, and likely will, derail even the most poetic of passions.
Demy, of course, revels in the dichotomy. Theatrical and sugar-coated on the surface, Cherbourg reveals a deeply-felt tale of loss that is at once life-affirming and disparaging. True love is something felt, and easily lost, and though the two lovers at one time felt it would end their existence to exist without the other, love is only fleeting and we must go on. We continue, we who bear the emotions, the feelings of passion that are born of our attractions, we lived before they were made manifest and we will live after they have dissipated, perhaps this is the true existential musing of Cherbourg. The emotion is distilled within Legrand's score for the film, and it is impossible to separate the effectiveness of the film from the effectiveness of the music. the set pieces that give the film its distinct flavor are contained in the earliest scenes, and the train sequence when Guy is called off to war, it is here that the power of the film is contained. Demy never ceases to accent to add increasing levels of color as we approach the film's darker themes. As the film falls into its new narrative beats in each act, we are only elevated by the unwavering song and the increasing poetry of the design. By its construction, the film seems to grow ever more lovelorn and bittersweet. This, of course, is a matter of personal interpretation. Is Cherbourg a tale of triumph or a tale of loss? Is it a tale of young naïveté replaced by a maturation of emotion? Or is it a tale of the ideal love being lost and replaced by a passive acquiescence? By the film's climax we see Guy, seemingly happy in his new life, coming into contact with his old love once again. In a way, he has what he was looking for at the outset. He has the gas station he had hoped to own, he has love in his life and he has a son, so why does the scene where he meets Genevieve again feel so traumatic? Is it perhaps that they have both named their child by the same name? Does it solidify that they had diverged and yet hung onto something from their past romance. What Demy imbues here, and the strength of the picture, is that the singsong nature of the dialogue allows them to be so candid. By communicating in in emotional song, all kinds of dark thoughts are exposed, Madeline even goes so far as to say she believes that Guy's affection for her is actually the affection for the next best thing. Guy casually denies this, but we wonder if it's true. We will go on wondering, for the answer is never given. Demy explores a dark truth about love. Surely, their affection for one another at the film's outset is genuine, surely Deneuve as Genevieve is true when she expresses she will 'die' if Guy leaves her, but what of her newfound affection for her new husband? Is it an affection of circumstance. Demy seems to be telling us that it is. Both had a youthful ideal in mind and both settled for the easy answer that was in front of them at the moment, rather than chase love's hardships. It is in this that Cherbourg is at its most impactful. Little can be said, it can only be witnessed, about the perfection with which Demy crafts his visual language. It is a language that can only be spoken through the film, but the images tell the tale all on their own, calling back to the silent era, telling a story through the images alone and the song and lyrics only adding to it. Musicals do not often sing of buried thoughts and feelings, and here, it is all they sing about.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg exists in a world that is purely cinematic, it makes little attempt to relate to our world and the human emotion that it conjures is more real than most. It cannot be said for many films, but it is wholly unique in cinema; never rivaled, in fact, never even attempted again. It has never been paralleled. The use of juxtaposing elation via color and music with a narrative of love and loss brings us closer to the internal human experience than any other. A world of beauty and passion that is subject to the tides of time, to circumstance, and to doing what seems like the best bet for the moment, rather than following idealism. It is one of the most delicious dichotomies ever manifested on celluloid to be sung a song of the life often chosen, it dramatizes the normal. Through Demy's refusal to film anything that is not keyed on such high power, the film takes on an other-worldly grace, all the while the developments of the plot refuse to follow suit. The resulting film exists on two levels at once and rings into its audience at a level that is at once familiar and completely foreign. Demy brings us poetry in the form of a musical, and redefines a genre while giving a thorough thesis of it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a mircale of cinema.