April is French Film Month!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo
Directed by Jacques Demy

My Rating:

A moving, bittersweet modern opera about first love in France

Bitable Bytes:
"Beauty and obvious humanity!"
"The longing and sorrow are palpable."
"Touches the Heart!"

What to do while watching:
If you say anything at all during this film, you must sing it.

What to eat while watching:
Here's what you do:
Put a wheel of Brie cheese (or fraction thereof) into an oven-safe dish. Put shelled pistachios or crushed pecans on top of it, and top this with a sprinkling of brown sugar. Warm it at about 300°F for about 7 minutes or until it is creamy and smooth as Catherine Deneuve. Serve with crackers or a broken baguette. Oh, my, my! It's so decadent, you won't care. And so French!

The most apparent aspects of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are it's vibrant pastels and the fact that it is entirely sung. An opera of the ordinary, characters sing their every conversation. The wise advice of a mother is given entirely in song as is the beatific dialogue between lovers, as is the interruption of some stranger who blunders into the wrong store. "Is this the post office?" he sings. "Down the street," snaps the store's owner tunefully, and the man is gone. But there are no "musical numbers" per se, which is good for people who don't care for musicals. You get used to the fact that everyone is singing after a while, and you don't need to readjust every time someone transitions from spoken dialogue into song.

Despite its beauty and obvious humanity, I don't think a film like this would be made today. There's something too unreal, too neo-classical about having every single line sung even though the story remains basic, human and unlofty. I've spoken about the verisimilitude that many French film aims at--the drive to create a true-to-life picture of relationships between people--and singing everything detracts from that somewhat. Nevertheless, the characters (in spite of their singing) are quite recognizable as people that you know, have known, have been, are or will be.

I'd call this movie a classic, an important film for all students of the cinema. A note on the subtitles: I like how those in charge of creating them credited their audience with enough intelligence not to subtitle lines like "Oi," or "No." It's subtle, but unlike so many films these days, this one assumes an intelligent viewer.

The story is a classic, in part due to this very movie. Girl and boy are in love; girl and boy must part; girl and boy find love elsewhere, but love that is somehow lesser than that first love between them. A young woman, Genevieve, works with her mother in an umbrella shop. Catherine Deneuve plays the part convincingly, and, indeed, launched her very successful film career with this picture. Genevieve is itching for something more out of life, and she falls in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic. Their relationship of song is that totally pure, all-encompassing, uncut blooming of first love. They both recognize the difficulty of their youth and relative poverty, but believe that their enormous love will conquer all.

Mom tries to tell her daughter about all the aspects of life that affect and impact love, but her daughter can't hear this information. As Rumi says, "Don't waste your time trying to reason with lovers."
Enter another young man, a successful importer who travels the world. He's rich and handsome and charming, and, too, has eyes for Genevieve. So what! Genevieve and Guy are the unbreakable vortex of love, until... Guy gets that fateful letter, a draft notice to fight in the Algerian War. He must go.

The process of separation is bitter with just a tiny hint of sweetness. Though Guy and Genevieve consummate their love, the leave-taking wrenches both hearts painfully. If the first part of this movie came off with some sense of melodrama (especially amid all the singing), the second part is totally, starkly human. There is nothing pretended here, and the longing and sorrow are palpable.

The predictable complication emerges: Genevieve is pregnant. Still, the rich importer desires her to be his wife. Finally, her belief in Guy's eventual return wanes, and she agrees to marry the importer. When Guy returns to France, years later, his guardian is on her deathbed. He hears that Genevieve has married, and he is in a deeply broken state. His long-time platonic friend and his guardian's caretaker at last helps him get back on his feet, and in so doing, wins his battered, bruised love.

Treated as we are to this slice of life spanning about 5 years, we see a pure bloom of the purest love trundled over by the cruel and harsh (albeit pastel) world. We see that love blossoms again, for both characters, a little less brilliantly, but perhaps more sturdy for the sacrifice. What touches the heart is the recognition of these feelings that exist beyond words. The music helps to reach these non-verbal emotions. You will doubtlessly recognize several of these melodies, and I think you'd be a rare individual indeed not to be touched by this film. Don't we all remember first love, losing it, finding it anew? Ah, life!

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

Gooden loves to share!

For your collection: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (VHS), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (DVD)

Gooden's listening to: Bass Line Dada on MP3.com. FREE! It's hard for me to give an impartial opinion of this music. Why not listen and tell me what you think? Though it does a lot to defy genre, it is quintessential entertaining in its playfulness and vulnerability. And there's some toe-tapping to be done as well.

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