Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Penultimate French Tearjerker: Les Parapluies De Cherbourg


Before her role in director Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic musical, Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, Catherine Deneuve was best known for giving birth to Roger Vadim’s illegitimate son. In a way, this was good preparation for her portrayal of an unmarried, 17-year-old who finds herself pregnant by a boyfriend serving in the Algerian War. Just twenty-years old when this film made her an international star, Deneuve’s melancholic performance was greatly enhanced by an unforgettable Michel Legrand musical score. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Musical Score, this film won the Golden Palm and the OCIC.

les-parapluies-de-cherbourgLes Parapluies De Cherbourg is my all-time favorite film. I was in graduate school, studying French history, when a colleague asked what I thought of the French New Wave. This discussion naturally included the French’s love of jazz and films with unhappy endings. This, of course, was a perfect time for my colleague to mention that there was a film that encompassed both of these elements: Les Parapluies De Cherbourg. A lover of musicals since childhood, I jumped at the chance to watch this film once a copy could be procured. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

I suspect I was just as shocked as the audience at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival when I realized that the ENTIRE film is sung (in French, of course)—there is no “traditional” dialogue. Instead, it is a modern day (popular) opera, set primarily to a jazz score. This tends to create a problem for American audiences who overwhelmingly dislike reading subtitles at “normal” speed, let alone at song-lyric speed. About fifteen minutes into watching I turned the subtitles off. My French was passable at the time, so I could mostly keep up with what was being sung.

Legendary French songwriter Michel lpdc3Legrand, with the aid of Demy and others, wrote a musical soundtrack/script that is at times playful, romantic, and haunting. The most famous song is the title song, “Les Parapluies De Cherbourg” (more commonly known in English as “I Will Wait for You”). The instrumental version, which closes the film in heart-wrenching fashion (you will never forget it once you experience it), is brilliant all by itself. Then, when you set effortless lyrics to the score, it is a phenomenal love song. The closing pass of the song (finished off with a rousing violin-drenched crescendo) is:

Ils se sont séparés sur le quai d'un gare

Ils se sont éloignés dans un dernier regard

Oh je t'aim' ne me quitte pas

Loosely translated, from French to English:

They separated on the platform of a station

They moved away in one last look

Oh I love you does not leave me

The best recorded version of this song is by the Greek diva-extraordinaire Nana Mouskouri. Often imitated but never surpassed by countless covers (by such artists as Tony Bennett and Carlo Berardinucci), it is a timeless song that even after 45+ years doesn’t sound dated. In addition to this gem there are other seamless songs that carry the film along to its eventual devastating conclusion.

parapluies-de-cherbourg-1963-10-gAnother startling element of the film is the way Demy uses color to carry the story. Cherbourg is an often rainy and dreary port city in Normandy, so the bright blues, oranges, pinks, reds, and yellows that Demy uses in the clothing and overall set design is far from a realistic portrait of the title city. Yet, the virtual Technicolor world that he creates, with bright swatches of color, serves as a co-conspirator in the film. For example, in the beginning of the film everything jumps with color, which corresponds to the happy state of young lovers Genevieve (Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). In a way the bright pastels serve as blinders—the young, impetuous lovers are surrounded by bright, clear color, but they can’t truly see what lies ahead. However, by the end of the film, when the now irrevocably parted lovers meet by chance one snowy night, there is a notable absence of color. Agnes Varda, Demy’s wife (and a director in her own right) has said that Demy’s use of color was aimed at portraying the violence and the cruelty of the story.

For those who like to see happy endings, there is no crueler ending than what you are given in this film. I have often contemplated why the ending is so emotionally jarring. I think it has a lot to do with the youthful exuberance shown by Genevieve and Guy, who are so much in love at the start of the film. It is a pure and innocent love, which in any other film would have come off as sickeningly saccharin. Then, your heart absolutely breaks at the famous train scene where Guy goes off to Algeria with a teary-eyed Genevieve on the train platform. But that’s okay, because the movie is only half over and you know they are going to get married and have a child named Francoise as soon as he returns—right? After all, she did sing she would wait for him! Oh, but she finds out she’s pregnant and Guy doesn’t write and the next thing you know she’s marrying that wealthy jewel smuggler (Marc Michel) from Lola (another Demy musical, from 1961) who you felt so bad for when his romantic hopes were crushed by that slut Anouk Aimee! Yet, still somewhere in your mind is the thought that Guy will come home and save Genevieve from a loveless marriage and all will be right in Cherbourg. But, alas, that’s not what happens.

Instead, you learn the bittersweet lessons that love does not always conquer all and that not everyone (especially you the viewer) gets a happy ending. Instead, people settle. nino_castelnuovo_parapluies_de_cherbourgGenevieve settles for wealth and security; Guy settles for companionship and loyalty. The one small detail that the viewer can take solace in is the unforgettable final scene, where by revealing the names of their respective children, both named Francoise, the couple are somehow still connected—even if they are living different lives they need only say the name of their child and some semblance of what once was pure love remains: “Oh I love you does not leave me.”

This movie made Deneuve a star. Her Genevieve was innocence personified. Called upon to display every emotion, from love to despair, she transforms a naïve, love-struck teenager into a resigned, world-weary woman who accepts that life isn’t always fair. Of course, Roman Polanski and Luis Bunuel couldn’t wait to tarnish that innocence, but that’s a story for another day.


  1. Kim I think I will learn a lot from this month's spotlight on foreign films. I have never followed them very much. I don't mind subtitles, they never bothered me, but I just never got really bitten by the foreign bug. I had no idea that this one was like an opera. I had heard of it, but never seen it.
    I loved the Chinese Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with Mandarin Chinese subtitles. As a matter of fact, I don't like to watch foreign films dubbed at all -- you miss the beauty of other languages, the real acting of the skills, and they always sound false.
    A funny story about watching Japanese classic The Seven Samurai. My son was about 3 months old and sleeping. I was just riveted to the show, then he woke up and needed to be changed. As I went into the baby's room, I asked my husband to turn up the sound so I could keep track of the movie. Then I realized that it was all in Japanese and I couldn't follow it anyway! I had become completely unaware that I was reading subtitles!
    Thanks for a very good post on one that I want to see now.

  2. Kim, great review and great start to the Foreign Film Festival. I haven't seen this movie, but I would love to see a film in which the entire dialogue is sung. Plus, Catherine Deneuve is in it (excellent stills, by the way). I added this to my Netflix queue. I'm especially glad that you shared with us your "all-time favorite film," which makes your write-up more personal and all the more sweeter.

  3. Kim, a lovely post on a lovely film. Despite being a lifelong Francophile and worshiper of Deneuve, I'd always avoided this movie, fearing it would be just too precious, until I picked it up on impulse at the library. Was I ever surprised--I loved it and immediately put Demy's other early films in my Netflix queue. It had me hooked from the opening credits with that color palette/ballet of umbrellas photographed from above. Everything in the film I had reservations about worked beautifully--the sung dialogue, the ultra-romantic story, that gorgeous candy-colored Technicolor dream vision of life. It's just a real one of a kind movie that I don't think could ever be successfully imitated, even though the film itself is a sort of pastiche of movie dreams and fantasies. However, I wouldn't call the ending of the movie sad so much as stoical, a realistic adult antidote to the youthful dream world of the rest of the movie--in the sense that events can alter our dreams for the future and there is nothing we can do but accept it and learn to live with it. The question I had at the end of the movie in that wrenching reunion at the filling station was "Will they get back together?" Demy's answer is "No, they won't, but they will always have the memory of their youthful dreams even as they go about their comparatively drab but not completely unbearable present lives." For me, the essence of Gallic melancholy--the present always imbued with memories (and melodies) from the past. I suppose that is sad in its own quiet way. Anyway, a great post that I hope will inspire your readers to give this one a try.

  4. Kim, I saw this long ago, as a teen, on television with no subtitles and I still enjoyed it (and my French is not very good as ma femme often reminds me). The potent bittersweet ending reminds me of SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, one of my personal favorites. Catherine Deneuve is simply radiant in UMBRELLAS and it's easy to see why it catapaulted her to fame. The singing of the dialogue is an acquired taste; sadly, I know a couple of people who found it jarring--but then there are folks who just don't like opera! As you pointed out in your marvelous review, Demy's use of color is enchanting. For those who have never seen UMBRELLAS, there are some fabulous high-quality clips on YouTube. As Sark said, thanks for sharing one of your favorite films, Kim.

  5. I have never seen the film, but I want to. I remember seeing one of the songs sung on an episode of 'Hullabaloo' when I was a kid. They were doing a tribute to the songs nominated for the Oscar that year.

  6. Becky, I agree about watching dubbed films--they take something away from the film. I laughed at your story about The Seven Samurai.

    Sark, I think you will enjoy this. It used to be an instant view at Netflix, but they changed that recently.

    R.D., the ending, to me, is sad due in part to how realistic it is. Not everything ends happily--we know that in "real" life, but the fictional illusion that there are happily ever afters somehow comforts us in this knowledge. Does that make sense...in my warped mind it does.

    Rick, I agree about the jarring element of the sung dialogue. This film reminds me a lot of other films that are viewed as "difficult" to watch, such as Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible--both excellent films that some viewers just can't handle. I say to those people: Stretch yourselves!!!

    Glad everyone enjoyed the review. I posted the train scene on my blog if you want to watch. See sidebar with link to 1001 films.

  7. Kim, I truly enjoyed your enthusiasm for your all-time favorite film! I am quite intrigued by your description of the use of color and lack of dialogue for lyrics. Thus far I have led a Parapluies-less existence but I hope to see this one day. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

  8. Kim, I have seen "Umbrellas" many times, it is very beautifully done and completely unique...its wistful theme song reflects the film's mood so well. Thanks for another fine post...I'm going over to your blog now to watch the train scene...

  9. great post, kim...what a time capsule film...right in the middle of the explosion of french NEW WAVE films..how iconoclastic..everyone i knew saw it (or claimed to)..the sequel..THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is decidely inferior..doctom666 from CFU

  10. Toto, I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you see the film soon.

    Eve, I think this is one of the most unique films ever made. Demy liked to do things differently.

    Doctor, you are right about this being a time capsule film and representative of the French New Wave. However, I have to disagree about The Young Girls of Rochefort being it's sequel. While it is another Demy/Deneuve musical, the story is totally different from Umbrellas. While it is not as good as Umbrellas, it has some good points. Plus, we get to see Deneuve and sister Francoise Dorleac play the daughters of Danielle Darrieux--that's a pretty good triple threat.

  11. I have to agree with you Kim, I enjoy "Rochefort" similarly - what a triple threat...it is interesting to watch the two sisters work together, particularly since Francoise did not long survive. And I am a fan of Danielle Darrieux, too...