Monday, May 28, 2012

Master Class: Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

I live in a rainy city. Even today, after a week of perfect sun that seemed to serve as a prelude to summer, the skies opened and I found myself digging out my rain coat again. That’s what happens when you live in a port city. And with the closure of this year’s Cannes Film Festival on my mind, with a French film victorious, there was no better time to see Jacques Demy’s classic 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

On the surface, this seemed like a simple love story when I first saw it years ago. The young man, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is in love with 17-year-old Genevieve (the luminous living legend Catherine Deneuve, in her breakthrough role). He’s a mechanic who dreams of opening his own garage. She works for her mother in the town’s only umbrella boutique, which is on the verge of financial ruin. They talk of marriage, although her mother disapproves (he has only a sickly godmother, thus completing the familial economics of the story). Figurative dark clouds appear overhead in addition to the rains: the Algerian War is raging several hundred miles away, and he must serve. “I will wait for you”, she sings to him, repeating “je t’aimes, je t’aime, je t’aimes” repeatedly as his train takes him away. While Guy’s away, a wealthy jeweler has his eye on Catherine, and the separation and other circumstances conspire to keep the young lovers away for good. I haven’t even mentioned that the whole has nary a line of spoken dialogue, as everything is sung beginning to end, and it finishes in a lightning-fast 90 minutes.
Few films dared, even musical ones, to become full-scale operettas where every word was expressed in song. Even the most famous of musicals had great dialogue and witty exchanges. Not so in Demy’s enduring love story. Demy had the incredulous notion that the whole thing would be sung, and he was fortunate to find a supportive producer who saw his vision completed. The film was a smash in Paris, claimed the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and proceeded to storm the world, culminating in global success, a Grammy nomination for the soundtrack, several Academy Award nominations and an invitation for Demy to live and work in the United States, which he happily accepted. And yet Cherbourg remains his most revered masterwork. Why is this?

The secret lies in the film’s simple structure: a boy and a girl in love, torn apart by life circumstances and choices, but not by plot machinations or something as convenient as deus ex machina. When Demy collaborated with Michel Legrand for the film’s now-famed score, they stuck so faithfully to the idea of a three-hanky-weeper that they wrote at which points in the film each of the three figurative hankies should actually be taken out. The operetta format elevates how we see and experience young love for the first time, when everything in life tastes, smells, feels and sounds that much better. There is nothing else in the world but love. Emotions are heightened and never stop, even when the emotions swell and contract, for better or for worse, and Demy understands this. The music, while constant, doesn’t come at your relentlessly. Instead, it is as gentle as the tide, ebbing and flowing, but it never stops. It may have a sweeping orchestral suite throughout, but it’s also heavily jazz-influenced. Regardless, the two genres make compliment each other seamlessly. This is a seemingly small charmer of a film that grows into a grand masterpiece and reminds you of how you felt in that first brush of true love, and how heartbreaking it is when it doesn’t work out. The film’s coda, which I won’t give away, gives closure, is almost unbearably cruel, but also accepting of the hard choices we make in life, without judgment.

Cherbourg was filmed in eye-popping gorgeous colour schemes. The town feels just a bit more lived-in than most film musicals of the era. You could sense that people actually lived there and that it wasn’t just a film set. Demy knows that such a simple touch made the film connect that much more to the audience: this could happen to even the most uncomplicated people you know, and it’s a complete heartbreaker when life intrudes. There’s an expression that God likes having a laugh when people make plans for the future. While religion doesn’t figure heavily in Cherbourg, one is reminded that compromise and making do are what shapes our experiences and makes us into the people we are. The film’s final scene, when Guy and Genevieve meet under circumstances more complicated than they are, is a coup de grace of such delicate balance that if the emotions were glass, they’d be smashed to smithereens.

Who says life is simple? It’s not, and you must be prepared for any circumstance. That’s what life in Cherbourg is like, just as it is in my city. In both cases, carry an umbrella, just in case. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available in glorious DVD and Blu-Ray. Watch it with a box of Kleenex. This is one weeper that earns its tears honestly.