Jacques Demy announces the “movie”-ness of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from its opening iris shot, a silent-era throwback that begins the film with an effervescent charm. That carries through to the credits, played when the camera tilts from its view to a shot looking straight down as people walk by carrying umbrellas. Demy further stresses the artificiality: as the credits roll, people walking under red umbrellas move across the screen one at a time in seemingly random directions (but always perpendicular to one side of the frame). Then, when the title credit flashes, Demy changes up the color-coordinated but distinct individuals with the sudden appearance of a row of people holding umbrellas of different colors. The spontaneity of movement and uniformity of color inverts, but neither arrangement is any more real than the other.
Demy plays up the immaculate, cinematic construction of the musical throughout the film, casting Cherbourg in outlandish pastel palettes of purples and greens and converting all dialogue to song. (In another bit of directorial control, Demy overdubs his actors with professional singers.) Yet for all its bright color tones and the swing of Michel Legrand’s brassy score, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells a decidedly downbeat story, one flecked with an honest appraisal of social constraints placed on people personally, financially and politically. Where similarly bitter subject matter for musicals has been communicated through excessively revisionist cruelty (Dancer in the Dark) or styleless vacuity (Les Misérables), Demy maintains all the elements common to the genre and, more impressively, keeps them all in sync.
The harmony between mise-en-scène, music and narrative can be felt most strongly at the start of the film, with local mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) in a blissful, playful romance with the daughter of the umbrellas shop owner, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve). Their young love paints the walls of those banal settings of a garage or a humble street shop, and Legrand’s score alternates between the bombast of their activities together and a few intermittent squeezes of an accordion for a more stereotypically French sound of blossoming romance.
Within this unity of form and content, though, small aberrations maintain the musical flow while hinting at future developments. When Guy and Geneviève move out onto the dance floor of a small club to mambo, a brief buzzing tone spikes in Legrand’s score. The flourish matches with the overall swagger of the music at this part of the film, but its lustful loss of decorum seems to presage not only the dropped inhibitions of dancing but a further drop of inhibitions to come. Sure enough, the couple soon consummate their relationship, just as Guy gets drafted to serve in the Algerian War and must leave for a two-year tour of duty.
That sudden upheaval should place the story wholly at odds with the established visual tone, but Demy not only does not drastically alter his approach, he does not stoop to playing the visuals and music as ironic contrast to the elegiac turns the narrative takes in its second and third acts. Rather, Demy and Legrand’s outlandish, generic structures serve to communicate the feelings the characters cannot. A pregnant Geneviève receives a letter from the front from Guy, and the weary singing of Guy’s voiceover as he “recites” the letter mingles with the snowstorm that sends flurries cascading down outside her window, as well as her own white clothing. Absence, it would appear, does not make the heart grow fonder.
Absence plays a critical role in Demy’s mise-en-scène, within the second act that bears that name and without. The second act certainly takes the concept to its extreme: Geneviève wilts without Guy, while her mother (Anne Vernon) tries desperately to set her up with a man before the baby comes. Scenes with the diamond dealer, Cassard (Marc Michel), often isolate characters in one-shots, and often Geneviève is not even present for Cassard’s courtships. The passions of young love give way to marriage as a form of agency. The mother is not unfeeling in her quest to find her daughter a suitable husband; if absence pervades this act as it is, imagine how it will be for Geneviève as an unwed, single mother in 1958.
That sudden feeling of stagnation and loneliness can be found even in those earlier passions, however. Using the standard European widescreen ratio of 1.66:1, Demy tends to center his actors in the frame to the point that the edges feel as spacious as a ‘Scope frame. When Guy and Geneviève move down streets that seem to belong to only them, they fit in with a long tradition of studio films ceding entire cities to two lovers out for the night. Yet Demy accentuates that emptiness when the two finally going to bed with each other, cutting abruptly to places the two had just been, places that now seem so empty and lifeless without them, despite the wild colors on display. And of course, when Guy returns to Cherbourg to find everything he knew changed, the final arc of resignation to his own altered romantic fate brings out the pangs of sadness that can lie underneath settling down.
The directness of these compositions (and the purity of Legrand’s score in voicing their emotional content) is matched by the language of the sung dialogue. I took French classes for years but could always read and write it with much better understanding than I could listen and converse in it. Nevertheless, I made it through entire passages of song without having to look down at the subtitles, an occurrence that baffled as much as it delighted me. I may have found some explanation for the lucidity of the language in an anecdote about French social behavior and language in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the film for the Chicago Reader. Rosenbaum finds formality “in the everyday speech patterns of the French, who trot out formulas on all sorts of occasions: they're just as common in intimate conversations between lovers and close relatives as they are between coworkers or between clerks and customers.” The textbook formality of the dialogue/lyrics is not a construct but the natural form of French communication.
The carefully regulated structure of the French language makes for a perfect fit for the film’s own rigid formalism, for both serve to communicate raw feeling through their strict designs. Dancer in the Dark and Les Misérables attempt to counteract the musical as a form of ebullient comedy by effectively destroying it, but Demy sees how such a genre is not predisposed to one emotional tone but all of them, each played to its aesthetic extreme. Demy’s film takes place in a closed-off microcosm where even the ghosts of his debut feature, Lola, return, yet his ability to play conventions not against themselves but to previously untapped potential gives The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a universal feeling matched only by other musicals at the top of their class.