What comes first in this 1964 film from the French New Wave director Jacques Demy, the colours or the music?
Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve)is a seventeen year old who works in her widowed mothers umbrella shop and is passionately in love with twenty year old car mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Filmed on location in Cherbourg, their romance is marred by gritty reality – an unplanned pregnancy, parental pressure and a two year draft to the Algerian War. But this urban reality is set against the most glorious kaleidoscopic colour palette. Every scene is saturated in supercolour.
And they’re singing! It’s a wall-to-wall score, a cinematic operetta, a film in song; but the words they’re singing belie any notion of wistfulness. Against the swelling, romantic music, they sing of disappointment, financial worries, loneliness and heartache. This is a bittersweet reflection on the way love sometimes doesn’t conquer all.
Jacques Demy and his wife Agnès Varda were part of the French new wave, a group of film critics turned directors who emerged in the late 1950’s. They sought to play with classic Hollywood genres whilst taking inspiration from Italian Neorealism, a cinematic style that was reflecting the difficult economic and moral conditions in post WW2 Italy. It’s easy to see this with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy is paying tribute to great Hollywood musicals, ‘An American in Paris’ (1951) and ‘Singing in the Rain’ (1952) come immediately to mind, but its working class protagonists and tackling of serious issues mean that it’s never just a romantic story. What sets it apart from other new wave films though is its sumptuous paint box vision.
‘The film used colour like a singing Matisse.”
At the beginning of the film one of the car mechanics sings that he doesn’t like operas because the songs annoy him(!). The songs didn’t annoy me and I enjoyed what was happening with the music – also that it was set in 4 acts, but for me the colour comes first. It’s La La Land and Nanny McPhee, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd all rolled up together! Every scene is stunning.