Jacques Demy’s wondrous film (restored to its original bubble-gum colours under the supervision of his widow Agnès Varda) is a unique entry in the history of modern cinema. For his third feature, the director created an original screen musical with entirely sung dialogue, closer to a sort of "film operetta" or a "teenage symphony to God" (to quote from Brian Wilson, who should know) than to traditional musical films, melding a European sensibility with a love and influence of the American screen musical.

     At heart, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is a tenderly told, heart-breaking story of puppy love gone sour, set in the French harbour town of Cherbourg between 1957 and 1963. Service station mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is desperately in love with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), a romantic teenager who works at her mother’s umbrella shop. But Guy is sent off to Algeria for his two years of compulsory national service, leaving Genevieve miserable and pregnant, at the same time that a forgotten debt comes in for her mother (Anne Vernon) to pay. In steps wealthy diamond merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, reprising his role from Mr. Demy's earlier Lola), who is glad to help the family surmount the debt and secretly harbours the hope to marry the young girl, whom he loves from afar. Thus Genevieve is torn between waiting for a man who may not return from the war, or marry into security to ensure a future for their child, in a situation that shines a peculiar light on the mores of Gaullist French society in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

     The film's boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story may seem typical musical fare, but once you factor in the third act's desperately melancholy tone and ending, as well as the plot following the female character instead of the male, this turns out to be most certainly not your typical musical. Few films ask such suspension of disbelief from its viewers, due to every single word being sung rather than spoken (demanding that the soundtrack be entirely pre-recorded by professional singers, leaving the cast to mime the words and concentrate in the performances). It is, up to a point, an acquired taste: you're either charmed or turned off but wait until Mr. Demy’s smooth, gliding handling sweeps in, magnified by Bernard Evein’s brightly coloured fairy-tale production design, Jean Rabier’s gleaming photography and Michel Legrand’s sweepingly romantic, lyrical score. If by the first 15 minutes you’re not hooked, letting yourself in for a hyper-romantic hour and a half straight out of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad and beautiful fairy tales, then the film's stylized charms will probably elude you for good.

     Even so, taken on its own terms, this is such a creative success, such a superb achievement of Mr. Demy's desires, that Les Parapluies de Cherbourg has gone down in history as more than just a simple novelty. In fact, seeing as the director's previous Lola and La Baie des anges were hardly commercial successes, this was a huge gamble which producer Mag Bodard financed with money advanced by 20th Century Fox against the film’s distribution rights; but it became a huge commercial success, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes 1964, receiving three Academy Award nominations (best script, best score and best original song) and going down in history as an all-time classic. Sadly, it also marked the heights of the director's career; despite continued critical acclaim and a rollercoaster career, Mr. Demy never had a hit film again, forever trying to recapture the elusive magic of this unique achievement.

Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey; Harald Wolff.
     Director/writer, Jacques Demy; cinematography (colour by Eastmancolor), Jean Rabier; music, Michel Legrand; production designer, Bernard Evein; costume designer, Jacqueline Moreau; editors, Anne-Marie Cotret, Monique Teisseire; producer, Mag Bodard (Parc Film, Madeleine Films, Beta Film), France/Germany, 1963, 92 minutes. 
     Screened: Castro Theatre, San Francisco, December 29th 2011. 



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