By PHUONG LE
Fairy-tale cinema doesn’t get any better than Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One thing that sets the film apart are scenes saturated with a sugary color palette, exuding a sensational sense of vitality and hope. More importantly, however, is the fact that every line of dialogue in this unusual musical is sung, and while this might seem absurd, for a movie that centers on a young couple separated by war, nothing can be deemed too romantic. Through his innovative use of music, Demy managed to create a dreamy, alternate reality that can only exist on the silver screen while simultaneously exposing wartime turmoil.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opens on the drab sight of Cherbourg harbor in the early hours, devoid of human activities. The camera then quickly tilts down to a shot of numerous colorful umbrellas opening under the rain. Somewhere under the bleak façade of this coastal town, life is bubbling with all its vivacity. Among these dots of color are the main characters, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Both are experiencing life struggles: Geneviève lives with her single mother, whose umbrella shop is not doing well financially. Guy, a young mechanic, takes care of his sickly godmother on his meager wages. Nevertheless, the two are hopelessly in love and it seems as if nothing can stand in the way of their marriage plans, except the Algerian war, which Guy is drafted into. After sending her tearful promise to Guy on the train platform, Geneviève has to face yet another insurmountable problem, as she is now pregnant with her fiancé’s child.
Seemingly about young love, the film’s overt sentimentalism can easily sweep the audience away in its candy-colored cinematic symphony. However, Demy also offers many critiques on the socio-economy of France during the Algerian War, especially on the role of the women who were left behind. As letters from Guy become scarcer and scarcer, Geneviève is torn between waiting for him and returning affection for Marc (Roland Cassard), a rich gentleman who promises to take care of her and her child. The tension between romantic ideals and financial security heightens as the war draws on. It is also worth noting that, unlike the love scenes, monetary transaction sequences are painted with much somber colors. Following the fashion of many female characters in literature and cinema, Geneviève’s mother has to sell something deeply feminine, namely her jewelry, in order to keep up with the rent.
Besides depicting the plight of women during wartime, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg also comments on soldiers’ often difficult attempt to readjust to society after returning from battles. Guy comes back from Algeria a disillusioned young man, facing financial burdens as he is unable to find a job. While the camera follows him fluidly in the beginning to indicate a sense of freedom and energy, in the later part of the film the character is constantly seen entrapped in hallways or detached from his social surroundings.
In many ways, the tragedy that Jacques Demy aims to illustrate in this musical isn’t limited to the separation of Geneviève and Guy; it extends to the effect that war has on each of these young individuals as well as they face the painful reality of growing up and coming to terms with the futility of romantic ideals. Underneath the sweet romanticism, the movie poses cynical questions that challenge the romanticized sensibilities often found in literature or cinema about adolescent love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is undeniably a hard candy: it might be challenging to crack into and taste its bitter filling, but it certainly leaves an exquisite aftertaste.