Saturday 11 May 2013

1,001 Films: "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg/Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (1964)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a film that spends 90 minutes daring you not to believe in it, which makes it as much a provocation as the Nouvelle Vague films of the same period. An operetta in which every line of dialogue is sung - from "you smell of petrol" to the instructions given for making tea - it presents us with a world where mechanics mull over whether to attend the opera or the theatre of an evening; where Catherine Deneuve works as a shopgirl; and where people live in houses in which the primary colour is shocking, sweetshop pink. (Deneuve's mum, who runs the shop named in the title, admits to having decorated its living quarters the day before she gave birth, so she could have been legitimately delirious, I guess.) Just beneath all the design and artifice, and still very much visible, is a love triangle with Deneuve's Geneviève at the centre. The two men on either side of her: Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), the greasemonkey who impregnated her before having to leave on military service, and Roland (Marc Michel), an older diamond merchant who helps out the family at this moment of poverty, but doesn't know his love is pregnant by another man. 

Even if, like me, you're largely impervious to Deneuve (who essentially has to sustain the second act by herself), accept the reality Umbrellas presents you with, and it develops as a film of rare charm: in a work as genuinely lyrical as this, there's even a sense the heroine has been named Geneviève because that name trips off the tongue - and can therefore be sung - in a number of ways. (The secondary love interest is named Madeleine, which would appear to confirm it.) Because everything is sung, the variation comes in how it's sung: phrases with too many words and not enough punctuation for scenes of heightened emotion, short staccato bursts whenever the adrenaline is up. (Arguably those whose knowledge of French extends only to "je t'aime" and "mort" could more or less understand what's going on through listening to the soundtrack alone.) It famously looks just gorgeous - well, unless you're a Goth - although, preserved as it is beneath a layer of snow and ice (Deneuve's best working conditions?), there's something equally perfect about its monochrome final scene, which cuts through some of the excess elsewhere to sound a note of real, lasting poignancy: that it's funny, sometimes, how life can work out.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available on DVD through Optimum Home Entertainment.

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