Sunday, February 8, 2009
Film Ignorance #25: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Film: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Jacques Demy
Stars: Catherin Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it
Ignorance Rating*: Pending
In today's Tarantino-driven climate of pastiche, mash-up, homage, and outright theft, it's not often that I get to watch a film from any era that looks and sounds and feels like simply nothing else I've ever seen. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a movie. It's a certain kind of musical, one which I suppose I knew was theoretically possible but had never actually witnessed: there is no spoken dialogue, just singing. No musical numbers, no dancing, just 90 minutes of singing and a constant, jazz-influenced score.
But Umbrellas isn't such a revelation merely because it's all singing. It's a candy-colored confection, with every outfit shining brightly and every room wallpapered in some garishly glorious pattern. And, in addition to having colors that would make Powell himself weep, it's a very real and moving story of young love set during the French-Algerian war.
Our principals are Guy, a charming young gas station attendant, and Genevieve, a luminous young woman who represents my first visual experience of Catherine Deneuve (her voice acting role in Persepolis doesn't count). The two are in love, but Genevieve is too young to marry, and the draft looms in Guy's future. Genevieve's mother urges her to give up Guy and marry a rich suitor, especially since their umbrella shop doesn't seem to be doing very well, even though it's constantly raining.
Rather than try to disguise the three-act structure, Demy emphasizes it by telling us when each act begins with a title card. The first is the story of young love, and the charm of the music and the setting is matched only by that of the young lovers. The second act is the story of Guy's absence; the film's story switches to stark realism, which inexplicably works just as well in song in Candyland as it ever did in black-and-white in postwar Italy. And the final act, although the briefest, is the greatest of all: Guy's return is a brightly colored, musically and emotionally deep melodrama that provides all of the powerful sentiment in 20 minutes that The Red Shoes was unable to deliver in a 120.
I'm trying to regulate the giving of "Best. Film. Ever." so I initially rated this one as merely a classic. But it's more than that. Demy's vision gives us a triumph of life, art, love, color, fantasy, and realism, all wrapped together, and all inexplicably congruous. If you've ever enjoyed any musical and you haven't seen this one, give it a whirl. It's cinematic candy and a rich full meal, all in one.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.