"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" does not look or sound like a film that is 50 years old. Digitally restored with unusual delicacy, it continues to charm and delight for the same reasons it did back in 1964.
Winner of the Palme d'Or in Cannes and nominated for five Oscars, "Umbrellas" is a one-of-kind venture. Playing for a single week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles, this French film is unashamedly artificial yet strongly tethered to the real world of the coastal town in Normandy that gives it its name.
And though its antecedents are the great Hollywood musicals, this film's sensibility is unmistakably French. Writer-director Jacques Demy and his star, Catherine Deneuve, examine the vagaries of love, exploring the nature of attraction and what it can and cannot withstand.
Deneuve was just 20 when she made this film, her first major success, and her elegant, almost ethereal presence is still a potent screen icon.
Also a visual knockout is the film's wall-to-wall color scheme, which presents a world where almost everything has taken on the most wonderful pastel hues. Among the things that are so colored are the characters' clothes, the walls and furnishings of their apartments, even the very umbrellas that come out frequently in this very rainy town.
Yet "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" has none of the pastel fakery of something like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Demy and cinematographer Jean Rabier took pains to make this a nonartificial world, anchoring the film's pure visual poetry to the specifics of urban reality.
Perhaps the film's biggest gamble was Demy's mandate that all dialogue be sung. That's right, there's no periodic stopping and breaking into song, à la "Singin' in the Rain," every single "oui" and "non" and all the words in between are sung as if this were some kind of cockeyed opera. People must have thought that Demy was out of his mind when he had this idea, but it continues to work brilliantly.
Though "Umbrella's" visuals are candy-colored, Demy's worldview is more bittersweet. Love is central here — this is a French film, after all — but who ends up with whom has more emotional complexity than you might expect from an all-singing pastel universe.
"Umbrellas" covers a specific time period, beginning in November 1957. Handsome 20-year-old auto mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) can't wait to leave work and spend his evenings with his 17-year-old sweetheart, Geneviève (Deneuve), who works as a clerk in her mother's umbrella store.
These two love each other as only people on screen do, cherishing every moment together and delighting in planning a rapturous future. Decidedly less romantic is Geneviève's pragmatic mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), who archly comments that "people only die of love in the movies."
Then a real crisis hits. Guy is drafted into the French army for two years and sent into the thick of the Algerian War. The two swear eternal fidelity to each other, but even in the movies things are rarely that simple.
For when an emergency need for funds sends Madame Emery and Geneviève to their local jewelers, they meet wealthy Parisian diamond merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), just the kind of suitor the mother wishes the daughter had. Naturally, Roland is entranced with Geneviève, but how she will react to his attentions and the complex interplay of factors that results are the heart of this ever-youthful film.
'Umbrellas of Cherbourg'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: At Nuart, West Los Angeles