by James Clark
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) seems to be a simple and exquisite tale of the vicissitudes of young love. A then-unknown Catherine Deneuve seems to carry the whole show on her perfect, stately and fragile shoulders. Jacques Demy has given her the name, “Geneviève,” likening her to the fair maiden of the lore of Camelot with its complement of brave warriors whose care for beautiful presences seems never to have been surpassed. The setting, the French port city ofCherbourg, comes to us in the first shot as all misty, watery, and antiquated. Some time into its actions, Geneviève has a crown placed upon her head by her and her mother’s dinner guest, “Roland Cassard,” whose fortune comprises impressive numbers of high-quality jewels. The crown is golden in color and paper in substance.
There is nothing frivolous about that moment crowned by a party favor. (Having arranged for her daughter to find the “bean” in her dessert, no-nonsense Mom chirps, “Pick a King and make a wish.” Geneviève, lovely and poised as propelled by an actress/prodigy in creating that impression, more than gratifies the already-smitten visitor by gazing into his eyes a quietly declaring, “You are my King.”) It comes at a point when the girl’s protracted anguish at being separated from her lover, “Guy,” due to his having been drafted to fight in the Algerian War, takes on the even darker hues instilled by her pregnancy, and his virtually breaking off communication. The two women, both of whom eke out their living from retailing umbrellas in a snug little shop situated directly beneath the dining room table, had very recently come to a meeting of minds on the subject of where their interests lie. But that concurrence has been struck only after a monsoon-like evocation of pain from seventeen-year-old Geneviève, translating directly into songful declarations of love and lamentations about its being shattered. That situation provides the memorable musical heart of the narrative, but it comes nowhere near exhausting the musicality of this remarkably complex and subtle film as a whole.
What at first viewing might seem to be a handsome rendition of an old familiar experience becomes something far from familiar when followed into the labyrinthine infrastructure it so masterfully exposes for our consideration. What order of love, for instance, is implied by the second and third shots? In the scene directly following that which evokes storied romance, it is raining and we are looking down upon people criss-crossing at a cobblestone square, most of whom are concealed under their umbrellas. The colors, textures and cadences of these presences soon have us delighted by their whimsy, so much so we might not notice a close file of black “parapluies,” purposefully cutting along from left to right. Then we come to the third scene, a garage/repair shop, and a black Mercedes-Benz sedan needing some work. The driver is Roland; the repairman directed to service his car is Guy. It’s closing time, the latter has a date with Geneviève and he tags someone else for that overtime work. What he cannot so easily elude is induction thereby into the distemper, deadly danger and love as proffered by Demy’s haunted compass, always on hand, namely, film noir Kiss Me Deadly. Whereas this prototype’s driver is a barracuda who trips a jack and thereby squashes the mechanic depending on it, Cassard is the gentlest, most inoffensive of men. His netting Geneviève draws attention to the bruising juggernaut of world history within which he has attained to being advantageously positioned, a tide that keys the work to such anxiety that every word has to be sung to counter being squashed like poor Nick, Mike Hammer’s little friend. (En route to marrying the heroine, Cassard tells his future mother-in-law of his past, evoking his failing to win the love of a woman named Lola, a mishap [covered by Demy’s first film, Lola] the full extent of which, involving a stab at smuggling diamonds and acknowledging that an intrinsic coarseness of self-direction locks him into an emptiness [but, quite apparently, a potentially profitable commonness, and one not precluding affection], would help us to see where he stands. Back at the garage, Roland’s vehicle is described as having ignition problems.)
Before turning down Roland, Guy sends off a customer satisfied with his assurance that his motor’s noisily “running cold” is “normal.” Geneviève greets him outside the umbrella shop (for those playing it safe) with rapt protestations of reckless, extravagant love, and then slips into furtiveness about being with him like this, her mother being a cold pacesetter (“I’d be the happiest woman on Earth if sales were a bit more brisk”) and unlikely ever to warm to her relationship with a low-income earner. “I’d go away with you and never see her again,” she declares. Sprung from confinement by way of a lie as to seeing a girlfriend, she joins him at a performance of Carmen, that is to say, regarding an entity not so easily run into the ground by relatives, or anyone else. But the narrative makes clear that Geneviève and Guy are, for all their localized sensual excitation, creatures of the stolid, nuts-and-bolts-driven mainstream. After the show (which, by the way, clearly fails to engage them), walking along a raw and ponderous dockside, they trill forth a nursery-school-like, sweet and bouncy duet in thrall to the prospects of their marriage and life together. She assures him they will have baby girls, since that’s all her family’s genetics is known to produce. Then they turn to how they’ll support themselves, and she reflexively supposes they’ll go into entrepreneurial retailing, specifically centered upon an umbrella shop. He trails out an idea that it’d be nice to own a garage, and she chuckles, “Why? What an idea!” They’re having such fun nothing is taken amiss; but her inclination to essentially regard his public energies as that of a blue-collar nobody gives us pause. They go on to a bar/dance club and jiggle and plod about the floor, yapping all the while, while the music is decidedly tango. (Seated at a table, he, as all that night, chewing relentlessly on his gum, the music changes, she brightens and exclaims, “A mambo!” and they hit the floor in the same spirit as their other effort.) Then she gets shoved around by her mother, on her admitting to having lied and been with him. “You know nothing! You don’t just fall in love with a face you’ve seen in the street!”
The pace of a public avalanche unyielding to private dreams immediately quickens, serving with its pressure the creation of songful cries from the heart. Guy gets his draft notice, Mom gets an equally terrifying reminder from the Tax Man, and, while the lovers stage a series of classic farewell scenes, lukewarm Roland Cassard (a catchy variant of Deadly’s G.E. Soberin) cashes in, first rescuing Mom and the firm by providing some liquid reserves in exchange for one of her necklaces, and then, somewhat later, but still amidst the melodic havoc, rescuing pregnant and (by Guy) virtually forgotten Geneviève who seals a rather chilly deal with, “You are my King.” (Demy’s predilection toward threading, from film to film, not always the same characters but sometimes the same players, comes into play here. In a later musical, Peau d’Ane (Donkey Skin) (1970), Catherine Deneuve plays the part of a medieval princess who, in a convoluted sequence of events, agrees to marry her widower-father, her King. Thus, six years after Umbrellas, he was still about the business of studying and disclosing Geneviève’s faltering intent.) The memorable heartland of this saga of the triumph of Safety First or Settling for Second Best (only, here, who can be sure Guy is a credible First Best?) is crowned by the bucolic melody, “I Will Wait for You,” with its refrain, “Je t’aime! Je t’aime! Je t’aime! (“I love you!”), chiming like a church bell. Two cinematic features of these unrecognized as such death throes deserve some appreciation. As they make their way to Guy’s invalid god-mother’s flat, where he resides, to seize a night of consummation from the forces of loss, their walking along the sidewalk is overtaken by the sidewalk’s moving on its own, carrying them as on a conveyor belt of sorts, like nondescript products of global consumption. (This streetscape and all of the public interiors nearby are marked by bold jagged shapes and biting colors, in contrast to the chic patterning at Geneviève’s, but, as if to say in both cases, “We may be mice-like, but we have some vague idea of what it is to be a giant.”) The second spellbinder takes place at the railway station cafe, with Guy’s train imminent, Geneviève reciting hopeless hopes and inflated grief and endurance: “I’ll hide you… Don’t go… I’ll die!” and revealing a fatal lack of self-direction: “I can’t!… I can’t!” And of course we have “I Will Wait for You,” their duet here, emanating as much from exhaustion as conviction. What gives this scene its extra force is its paralleling the end of substantive love in Brief Encounter. Who knows? But it’s a certainty that Demy and Billy Wilder were allied in other ways (for instance, in admiration toward Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast [Sunset Boulevard being an amazingly witty and haunting take on the burning issue of “more real,” “sur-real”]). So why not in loving Coward and Lean’s modest and haunting masterpiece?
That film’s lovers, Laura and Alec, meet when they have already entered good but not great marriages, and entered upon parenthood, and they conclude that their responsibilities lie there, that they “won’t do such violence to [their] hearts.” (Laura goes on to admit to herself that it is fear of departing the cocoon of wide approval that stops her cold.) That leaves them, on parting forever, enhanced by having touched, however briefly, upon valid though remote regions of nature and its truths. Geneviève and Guy plumb those abysses not from out of careful, mature reflection, but in brief sensual delight and brief shock. She gasps, “Two years of our life! No, I can’t face it!” Her courtship (Roland very considerate about raising with her her and Guy’s child) and posh cathedral wedding (the limo being the black Mercedes, beribboned) takes less than a minute of our time. This course of action, as tracing out to a glamorous marriage) does carry tinctures of heights, but savored and musically performed in a key redolent of verve lost forever, a key not without its own endowment of dignified awe. While still hoping to take encouragement by hearing from revealingly noncommunicative Guy in the desert, she makes her way with difficulty across her street, thronged with happy, raucous townsfolk, costumed and flaring ribbons and noisemakers for the moment of Carnival. On entering the shop she spits out, “I hate the Carnival!” This was a girl who at heart saw no point in living anyplace but a palace (“Geneviève,” after all). She tells her mother—who had several months before told her, “People only die for love in the movies”—“I have no intention of wasting my life.”
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is not the kind of movie where people die for love. After a brief spate of churlishness back home (Geneviève now living in Paris), Guy marries the girl who looked after his now deceased godmother, and he opens a garage by virtue of an inheritance from that solicitous lady. On a December evening, Geneviève, passing through Cherbourg (in a new generation of Mercedes, black, of course) after retrieving her four-year-old daughter from her mother-in-law’s, stops for gas at the station belonging to him. He invites her into his office while the car is serviced in the chilly outdoors (an employee asking, “Regular or Super?” and she, a bit hesitant, deciding on Super). Their eyes have met and each maintains a sombre, gentle reserve, only the slightest touches of resentment passing across Guy’s face. She asks if he would like to meet the little girl. He shakes his head, “no,” and adds, “I think that you can go.” She asks, “Are you alright?”/ “Yes, very well.”
After an instrumental version of “I Will Wait for You” accompanies the departure, we can catch our breath and notice some things. Guy’s wife and little boy return from visiting Santa Claus, and they romp in the snow having been augmented by a fresh snowfall that had been in effect since Geneviève pulled into the property. The property, all modernist angles and glass, glows brightly in the snowy darkness, the way Soberin’s beach house glowed. (The franchise belongs to ESSO; the substance belongs to SO.) The snow resembles nuclear fallout (bringing to mind the nuclear quality of the expanding keyhole opening uponCherbourgat the outset). No one dies, but no one really lives. That, too, represents the musical excitement of a production that, for all its sweet cladding, is, at essence, a very tough cookie.
How The Umbrellas of Cherbourg made the ‘Elite 70’:
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 4 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 14 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 14 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 20 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 23 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 43 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 55 choice