Les parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy (a.k.a. The umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964).
Though The umbrellas of Cherbourg has consistently been on various Best Films of the 20th Century lists, it recently came back to the spotlight for being one of Damien Chazelle’s favourite movies and an essential influence on La la land.
It tells the story of Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), two young lovers in the small town of Cherbourg, Normandy. Guy works as a mechanic in a gas station, while Geneviève helps her mother (Anne Vernon) with the umbrella shop she owns. Being in a dire economic situation, Madame Emery would very much rather that Geneviève married rich and handsome jewellery merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Everything becomes more complicated when Guy is drafted for the Algerian war.
The umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special kind of musical drama, in that every line of dialogue is sung in a recitative style, but there are no actual songs in it. Recitative is used in opera to accelerate narration and introduce a scene or aria; it’s not common to use it on its own because it gives the impression that the characters are going to start singing a song soon but they never do. This can make this film annoying if one was expecting a musical in its conventional mode; when all is said and done, it’s an artifact that the director decided to use in a certain way and achieves an effect. Nothing more, nothing less.
While La la land is very different, once you finish The umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can see very clearly what Chazelle lifted from it.
***SPOILERS FOR LA LA LAND AND THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG***
Both movies build a romance between the two main characters and then undo it; the couples by the end of both movies are not the main couple that fought against adversity in the second act. Both couples reunite in the third act and are reassured they made the right choice. Cue heartbreak on the part of the viewer.
Many things are changed: Sebastian doesn’t have to go to war and there is no unwanted pregnancy involved; instead, Mia struggles with attaining stardom. But some other themes stay the same: economical and practical constraints as the driving force behind drama. Seeing a young and ardent love die over time, changing your mind about what things are important in life. Seeing a train that only passes once leave without you; healing and realizing you are pretty well off having missed that train. That train you thought was the only thing that could ever make you happy.
Structural differences are interesting: Demy shows how Geneviève and Guy are estranged over the course of the second act, with a climactic turn on the scene where Geneviève marries Roland. We witness Guy’s desperation over the departure of Geneviève and his eventual recovery. Nevertheless, the final reunion scene is very effective: though it is cordial, Guy refuses to go and meet his daughter. Chazelle uses all of the second act to build the decadence of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and then jumps directly to the reunion after five years. We are not shown the estrangement and subsequent healing: we were still expecting to see them having rebuilt their relationship, so we have to digest the fact that they never made it very quickly and over a montage of how things could have been if we lived in a better world. The effect is quite overwhelming.
It is curious that two films fifty years apart manage to pull off the same trick: while it is something that happens in life constantly, there are few movies about how first loves often go wrong and all’s well that ends well after all; we seem to be stuck in this Romantic notion of one true love that lasts a lifetime and conquers all (The Notebook is a particularly late offender).
All in all, it is a dated movie after fifty years and the musical decisions are strange, but it speaks about universal themes and it’s an unconventional romance, which is always worth something.