It sounds like hype, but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg really is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
It is also one of the most unique.
Unlike most musicals where the songs are interspersed between spoken dialogue sequences, every bit of dialogue in this 1964 film is sung – and to some of the most wonderful music imaginable. Not a moment of this movie is wasted.
The film’s beauty is not only in its music and its stunning color cinematography, but also in a deeply affecting, profoundly emotional story that sticks with you long after the final scene.
The plot is a fairly simple one: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall madly in love. Boy and girl are then separated by fate and try to keep their love alive despite the physical distance between them.
Onto this rather basic frame is built a story that transcends it thanks to the artistry of everyone who was involved in the film.
The film is set in the pivotal 1957-63 period of French history when the country nearly tore itself apart over its war in Algeria. While you never see the war, it hangs over the movie’s characters like a dark cloud, profoundly affecting their lives. Director Jacques Demy was not the kind of filmmaker given to political preaching, and you will not find any arguments about the rightness or wrongness of the Algerian conflict in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Nevertheless, the human cost of the war on the home front is very evident in this film.
The movie opens on a rainy day in the port city of Cherbourg where Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), a widow, and her daughter, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve in the role that made her a star), are working in the family business, a shop, not surprisingly called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Geneviève slips off to see Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a handsome young auto mechanic, with whom she is madly in love, but has not told her mother about because she knows she wouldn’t approve of someone of Guy’s low social station and seeming lack of promise.
Madame Emery, who’s having financial problems sets her heart on fixing Geneviève up with Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a wealthy young jewel merchant. Geneviève, nevertheless, remains completely fixated on her auto mechanic boyfriend. The Algerian War, however, intervenes when Guy is drafted into the army for a two year tour of duty in North Africa.
Guy and Geneviève pledge undying, eternal love to each other, but soon after Guy leaves, Geneviève discovers she is pregnant with his child. In the meantime, Cassard is still pursuing Geneviève although he does not know of her pregnancy.
Two questions then begin to dominate the film: One, will Geneviève keep her promise to wait for Guy’s return? Two, will Cassard still want to marry Geneviève when he learns she is carrying Guy’s child?
I won’t spoil the film for you by telling you what Geneviève’s ultimate choice turns out to be, but the fates of all of the main characters ring true, and the final scene is one of the most affecting ever made.
My descriptions of the plot, however, hardly do this film justice. It is, after all, a musical, and what a musical it is. American audiences will almost certainly recognize two of the melodies. One, where Geneviève and Guy pledge eternal love to each other, is known in the English speaking world as “I Will Wait for You.” It is truly haunting.
The other famous tune is known in the Anglosphere as “Watch What Happens.” Cassard sings this enchanting melody in the scene where he confesses his feelings for Geneviève to her mother.
But there is much more great music in this film. The movie’s opening sequence will give you a feel for the richness of the score and how it propels the plot.
Michel Legrand, one of film’s greatest composers, wrote the music for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In the years that followed, he continued creating memorable music in and out of film, including the utterly haunting “The Windmills of Your Mind,” which made its debut as the theme song for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Other deservedly famous Legrand film scores include Summer of ’42 (1971) and Brian’s Song (1971), but he never did better work than the vast musical canvas he created for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
So much more could be said about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It is thoroughly romantic, but unlike many musicals, it is not escapist. In fact, it is drenched in reality and is ultimately downbeat and bittersweet. Yet, it is also a joy to watch from beginning to end.
Paul is a writer, editor and radio broadcaster with wide ranging interests including film, literature, politics, travel and history. Currently, he is managing editor of Washington Restaurant & Lodging magazine and produces and co-hosts the weekly DineNW radio show on Tacoma's KLAY AM. Additionally, you can hear him twice a week on New York Radio Korea where he explains U.S. politics to a Korean audience. He lives in Washington state.