In the garage where he works, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) plans a trip to the opera. His colleague is unimpressed: ‘All that singing’s a pain – I prefer movies.’ ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, it’s safe to say, would not be for him: every line of dialogue (including his own complaint) is sung to Michel Legrand’s melodious songbird score. That’s not to say Jacques Demy’s 1964 favourite is an exercise in whimsy: it might start in the key of blissful romance – between gorgeous Guy and Catherine Deneuve’s luminous Geneviève, daughter of the widowed proprietress of the titular shop – but it stealthily proceeds to such mundanities as teenage pregnancy, conscription and lives divergent. Like ‘Billy Liar’ – made around the same time – ‘Umbrellas’ makes escapist play with the stuff of kitchen-sink social realism. It’s an approach signalled in the overhead shots of the opening credits, which find pattern and grace in everyday comings and goings, and mirrored by the heightened mise-en-scène: working for the first time in colour, Demy’s supersaturated palette flirts with vulgarity, the wardrobe’s rich hues fabulously coordinated with the decor (Geneviève’s mother is especially well matched to her flock wallpaper). As the story progresses, the tension between romance and reality – between the dreamlike aspiration of the musical mode and the sad getting-on-with-itness of the characters’ lives – only increases. But which life doesn’t sometimes squirm between secret hope and worldly frustration? When the film’s attention turns to Algeria – the action takes place from 1957 to 1963, at the climax of the French colonial crisis – you wonder what kind of songs they sing in the casbah.
Cast and crew
Catherine Deneuve Nino Castelnuovo Anne Vernon Ellen Farner Marc Michel Mireille Perrey Jean Champion