Monday, February 17, 2014

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Every February when TCM brings 31 Days of Oscar back to the channel, it seems to mean a few more foreign films than are normally in the lineup. Sure, there's no Imports film in the early Monday morning slot but TCM more than makes up for it in the rest of the schedule. There was already a morning and afternoon of foreign films early in the month, and tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM, TCM is showing the gorgeous French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

A young Catherine Deneuve, pictured above, plays Geneviève, who works as a shop assistant in the shop owned by her mother (Anne Vernon, whom you might recall from Terror on a Train), called "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg". The family's finances are in a parlous state, which is frankly understandable when you consider that the shop seems to sell umbrellas and only umbrellas. Into the shop one day comes a gem dealer named Roland (Marc Michel). He could be just what Mom is looking for. She can sell off some of her unused jewelry to help get the family out of debt, and Roland would be a perfect partner for Geneviève.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Geneviève is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). He's an auto mechanic, living with his elderly aunt Élise, who is also looked after by Madeleine. Guy and Geneviève seem right for each other, but being a mechanic isn't very well-paid work, which is why Geneviève's mother would like her to find a more suitable partner. There's also the fact that Guy seems to be a bit of a dreamer, wanting to open his own service station. At heart, though, he's a good guy who means well.

Guy's bigger problem, though, has nothing to do with Geneviève or money, but the draft. The movie starts off in the late 1950s, a time when Algeria was still a part of France, but was fighting for its independence. France needed soldiers to try to put down the rebellion, and unfortunately Guy gets called up to fight. He promises Geneviève he'll write her all the time, but eventually, the letters stop.

Geneviève, and especially her mother, fears that Guy is dead, although you'd think they would have heard about it from some mutual acquaintance. Broken-hearted, she decides that the best thing to do is marry Roland and leave Cherbourg aftre closing up the umbrella shop, since this will get her away from the sadness and provide her with some financial security.

And then Guy returns home. It turns out that he wasn't killed in action, just injured with a bum leg. Of course, once he's back in Cherbourg he wants to meet up with Geneviève, but she's gone off with Roland, and nobody really seems to know exactly where she is. So now Guy is broken-hearted too, and he's soon going to have to deal with the death of his beloved aunt Élise. Will our two star-crossed lovers ever find true happiness?

One of the interesting things about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it's a bit more realistic in its storyline than a lot of Hollywood love stories from the era. Life isn't necessarily going to be a bed of roses for Geneviève and Guy once they get married, adn sometimes you have to settle for having a reasonably comfortable existence, even if it's not the one you really hoped for. So, the story has a lot to recommend it.

The cinematography is also gorgeous, with vibrant colors, although as I mentioned with The Young Girls of Rochefort, I wonder how realistic they are. Cherbourg in the late 1950s certainly wouldn't have looked this clean and beautiful. The wallpapers like the one in the photo above might have been just as ghastly in their garish color schemes when they were first put up, but most of them would probably have been quite faded and a bit dirty. Still, the visuals also have a lot to recommend them.

The real problem with the movie is the dialog. Director Jacques Demy, who also directed The Young Girls of Rochefort, had the "brilliant" idea of having all of the characters sing their dialog. That decision has certainly made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a distinctive movie which stands out amongst the other foreign films because it's not just plain old talky dialog. However, it also serves to distract at times, which is a shame because the story really is a pretty good one. I often found myself wanting these people simply to stop singing and start talking like normal people.

Very surprisingly, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg seems to be out of print on DVD. It's a movie that, because of its distinctive hook and its high quality really deserves another DVD release.

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