The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg picks up where an earlier Jacques Demy film leaves off, both literally* and figuratively. The filmmaker’s breakthrough picture, 1961’s Lola was initially intended to be a big musical, but Demy adapted his original plans to fit the emerging financial realities of a French film industry in the wake of a New Wave-inspired revolution. Abandonded was his proposal for the film to be a Technicolor musical epic, and instead he shot the film on black and white film stock, with post-synchronised sound, ala Godard and co. The financial clout came from producer Georges de Beauregard, of Breathless fame, and a man whose name is synonymous with the Nouvelle Vague. With The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, his third feature, Demy finally realised his vision, with a film which would influence the remainder of his career, introducing the world to the Demy sensibility.
A desperately crippling love story told via the medium of the musical, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg places a young Catherine Deneuve next to Nino Castelnuovo, as a pair of star-crossed lovers whose relationship is fractured by his drafting in to the Algerian War Of Independence. While tales of of pre-marital pregnancy and colonial warfare might seem at odds with the overt stylings of the musical, which, when coupled with Bernard Evein’s lavish set design and Jean Rabier’s blinding cinematography stand as one of the most opulent cinematic creations of all time, it’s this discrepancy between the form and content in which the film’s killer blow is made all the more affecting. Blind-siding would be putting it lightly. The final moments of Demy’s film, during which things, naturally, reach a head, stand as some of the most emotionally raw of the era and beyond.
In realising the distinctive vision of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg Demy surrounded himself with a number of highly qualified figures. While it was with his memorable, not to mention integral, score to this picture that composer Michel Legrand came to the fore, he had already helped to shape the sound of the French cinema of the era with films like Demy’s own Lola, Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, and, most tellingly, Jean-Luc Godard’s song-less musical, Une Femme est Une Femme, the film on which production designer Evein also cut his teeth. There are numerous aesthetic similarities between the Godard film and the Demy, with both emphasising the importance of the Hollywood musical on the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank. Rabier was a veteran of all manner of Claude Chabrol projects, the earliest of which Le Beau Serge, stands as something of an antipode to The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and with that comes the obligatory (but very much welcome) DVD and Blu-ray special edition. The film’s transfer, derived from a recent restoration overseen by Demy’s son (and filmmaker in his own right) Mathieu is beautiful. It’s often said that no one used colour quite like Demy, with this reproduction standing as evidence to that. An extensive package of extra material compliments the feature. At the head of the supplements is The World Of Jacques Demy, a feature-length appreciation of the filmmaker directed by Varda (his wife, as well as his professional peer) that acts as both perfect celebration and ideal primer for the ardent fan and curious newcomer alike. A generous interview with Deneuve sits alongside a couple of brief critical evaluations and a short featurette on the restoration of the film, while an hour-long making of the film rounds things off. It’s an extensive package that has an air of the definitive about it, and comes with the highest of recommendations.
*Marc Michel reprises his Lola role of Roland Cassard in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg