September 2014 Blind Spot: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

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The Blind Spot film I selected for the month of September 2014 is also my introduction to the work of French director Jacques Demy, the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Mireille Perrey, Ellen Farner and Marc Michel. What distinguishes this film from other musicals, besides being in French, is that it’s entirely sung. Every little conversation, every meaningless word is sung. While this could have made the film insufferable, it manages to make the best out of it and the director creates something truly special.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg takes its name from the town the story takes place and the store that Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and her mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) own where they sell umbrellas. The focus is on young Genevieve, her love affair with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a young mechanic, and the difficulties they face when Guy is called out to fight in the Algerian War and Genevieve becomes pregnant on their last night together.

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Despite being inspired by the magic, song and dance of the Hollywood musicals, I found The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s story to be closer to reality than I thought it would be. That’s what I felt once the film’s 90 minutes finished. It is both a melodrama and a portrait of real life. A love torn by war that I’m sure happened to many people. And at the end of the day, a story of people trying to get by. I found Jacques Demy’s perspective to be fresh and impeccably put to screen.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable watching a musical. All those people dancing and singing for no reason. But lately I’ve been warming up to this genre. With Umbrellas being a musical from head to toe, entirely sung from beginning to end, I’m glad I saw it now because I would’ve have felt exhausted by it and bored by the end. The music is generally pleasing. It’s not too complicated, rather melodic. I noticed how when scenes of dialogue got too long and ordinary, the melody changed and became more complex to not get you out of the moment. That was a nice touch. I also recognized the song I Will Wait For You  immediately after hearing it for the first time on the Futurama episode Jurassic Bark which almost brought me to tears and that time not from laughter.

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The young pair of actors leading the story, Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, are charming and do great work. The fact that they look like models helps too. I mean Deneuve is just radiant in this film. The actress playing her mother, Anne Vernon, plays her part greatly. She could have played the role in a cliche way, making her an insufferable person and antagonist but she made her human and caring. A normal mother who looks out for her child.

Another thing that pops up in cinephiles’ heads when it comes to this film are the gorgeous settings, the vibrant colors that fill the streets of Cherbourg. Not to forget the beautiful costumes. I still remember the colorful suits Guy wears at the end of the film.

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In conclusion, I found The Umbrellas of Cherbourg satisfying and impressive. I enjoyed the actors’s performances even if they weren’t the ones who sang. Even though the story is simple I was touched by it. I felt like the story was something that happened to two very close people, a familiarity I don’t get from many films.

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