THE DVD SHELF: The Essential Musicals of Jacques Demy and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"

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03 Aug 2014

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This week's column explores a collection of films by Jacques Demy and the classics "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Big Chill."


The Criterion Collection, which periodically brings us what they term "essential" collections, now brings us The Essential Jacques Demy. Demy (1931-90), who began his career as a member of the French New Wave, enjoyed considerable acclaim in the 1960s for three innovative and unusual musicals which are quite unlike any that have come along before or since. The first of these, "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (also known as "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), is on my own personal list of essential movie musicals, so it is a joy to be able to watch it enhanced for Blu-ray.

I was also happy to get to watch the two later Demy/Michel Legrand musicals, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" and "P'eau Dane." (Demy's first feature, the nonmusical "Lola," is also of interest as it interlocks with one of the main characters of "Umbrellas" and takes us to a third French city, Demy's hometown of Nantes.) I won't say that I would categorize all six films in the set as "essential," but I will certainly revisit the three equally fascinating musicals.


"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) is a treasure indeed. Demy and Legrand — who had provided the background scores for Demy's two prior features — determined to make a sung-through movie musical of a type that didn't quite exist. (Demy was inspired by the Jets walking the streets of Hell's Kitchen singing lyrics in the 1961 Best Musical Oscar winner, "West Side Story.") Setting it in the Normandy port town of Cherbourg — an often rainy Cherbourg, as suggested by the title — they came up with a supremely emotional, supremely musical story of undying love (as suggested by the title song, known in English as "I Will Wait for You"). But a love that is doomed to die; one of the sentiments that comes up a couple of times is that tragically disappointed lovers say they will die, but they rarely do.

Demy builds his film on a windswept, rainswept canvas. The opening titles feature an overhead shot of portside cobblestones in the rain, with people passing in random groupings — most of them obscured by colorful umbrella tops — while the love theme is introduced. The song was almost immediately an international hit, so for many viewers the sentiments of the lyric-free instrumental were already known. The action begins with a scene in a garage, accompanied by a blast of jazz. (Legrand tells us, in a 2008 documentary included as a bonus feature, that they were concerned about losing the audience if they started the film with the actors singing lines to polite music. Thus, they came up with a jazzy — and noisy — opening to immediately capture the attention.)

The plot is simple, and somewhat reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy. Teen-aged Geneviève (Catherine Denueve) falls in love with garage mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). When he is called to sea — drafted to fight in the French-Algerian War — the pair vow undying love and mark their final night by consummating their non-marriage. He is gone, she is pregnant, so she pragmatically decides to marry the rich but unexciting jeweler Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Guy returns a year later, wounded, to find that Geneviève and child have moved away. After hitting the skids, he is redeemed by the love of the loyal Madeleine (Ellen Farner).

When Geneviève unknowingly pulls into Guy's service station six years after they parted, the couple have an uncomfortable discussion; when she wants to introduce him to their daughter, in the car, he abruptly sends her away. The film ends with Guy playing with his own son among the gas pumps, in the snow. (The children were Demy's adopted daughter and Legrand's son. Legrand's sister Christiane was involved as well, providing the singing voice of Geneviève's mother, Madame Emery.)


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