I’ve always meant to watch Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but never got around to it until a hot Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma. The opening straight down shot with rain falling on cobblestones as people with a variety of colored umbrellas transported me straight to France and away from the 100+ degree heatwave that exists in Oklahoma for the past few weeks.
This movie feels so unmistakably French, from the vibrant colors of the Gallic interior wallpapers to the quaint narrow streets with shops such as the family umbrella shop a 16 year-old Genevieve works with her widowed mother. Genevieve is in love with Guy, a 20 year-old mechanic who her mother doesn’t approve of. The pair coo, coo and more coo every time they are together in the kind of teenage French love that looks so romantic to see on film. Ah, to be in love while a teenager in France in the late 1950s!
Problems ensue when Guy gets drafted for two years of military service and Genevieve meets a suitor who is more suave and successful than Guy. Will she wait for him to get out of his military service or will she decide to marry this other man?
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical unlike any musical I’ve seen because the cast sings every line of dialogue in the film. Every line. At first I was thinking, “I don’t know about this,” as I’m not a huge musical genre fan, but the story is so lavishly photographed, romantic and Catherine Deneuve is so beautiful as Genevieve, I got into it.
The singing and color-drenched scenes make the film feel light as air but there is a real sad, bittersweet quality to the film as it evolves. I wasn’t expecting The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to have such a powerful ending but it’s the ending that will really give this French romantic musical its staying power when I think of it.