How can I describe Jacques Demy’s THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG? It’s not an opera, even though every word of the film is sung. But it’s not really a musical either. Set to Michel Legrand’s beautiful, jazz-inflected music, the film is a strange, affecting, heartbreaking hybrid that by all accounts should never have worked…but does.
Told in three acts–Departure, Absence and Return–the film stars Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève, a young shopgirl who falls in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a garage mechanic. The two lovers put their thoughts of marriage on hold when Guy is drafted into the Army. As the months progress, Geneviève finds out she is pregnant and, at her mother’s behest, agrees to marry a rich suitor (Marc Michel) who agrees to raise Guy’s child as his own and provide her the life that Guy cannot. The final scene in which Geneviéve happens to show up at Guy’s gas station is unbearably heart wrenching.
The film found enormous commercial success, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and copping an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film, while the soundtrack album became a bestseller.
Seeking to create a mixture of “poetry, color and music.” Demy ordered his crew to repaint entire blocks of houses, making over Cherbourg into a symphony of vibrant primaries and pastels, depending on the season. Color film had yet to become popular among the French New Wave and the Left Bank, but Demy embraced it, spilling stylized color onto the costumes and sets.
But the film would be nothing without Legrand’s haunting music, anchored by the melody to the nominated song, “I Will Wait For You.” Legrand’s music was written to fit Demy’s dialogue syllable by syllable (although when this created difficulties, Demy rewrote the dialogue to fit Legrand’s music). Legrand provides a score filled with one gorgeous melody after another and the music boasts an energy and level of romantic sadness that makes the film unique and moving.
The entire film was dubbed and before a single scene was shot, the singers recorded the complete score. The actors, who were present at these sessions, were each given a disk of his or her role and worked with the disk for two months before the actual filming began. Since all the dialogue is sung, the actor’s facial movements had to be like those of singers. So they actually sang their roles. “They sang horribly,” Legrand admitted. “They were never in the right key, but they sang.”
As Guy says goodbye to Geneviève at the railroad station, the look of devastation in the two lovers’ eyes is reflected in the most affecting use of “I Will Wait For You.” Their repeated declarations of love in counterpoint with the song’s melody are heartbreaking. If you’re not moved to tears, check your pulse.
Legrand was nominated for Oscars in all three music categories for the film–Song, Original Score, and Adapted Score–a record held to this day.
I defy anyone not to be caught up in the film’s simple love story. It doesn’t hurt to have two beautiful people playing the lovers and Demy’s striking use of color to complement them. Legrand’s music is stunning and makes a rewarding listening experience on its own.