Having recently become members of the Nickelodeon, my wife and I on Sunday attended a special showing of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, ” the film that launched Catherine Deneuve as a star.
I’m not what you’d call a big fan of colorful romantic musicals of the early 1960s, but this one was unusual, if not unique. And not just because it was in French.
First, it was at first glance visually very much like Hollywood films of the time — very Kandy-Kolored, none of that somber continental auteur black-and-white stuff. In fact, the colors were sort of a foreshadowing of the later psychedelic portion of the decade. The wallpaper alone in some of the interior sets would make you suspect there were some very funny mushrooms in the vicinity of Cherbourg.
Then there was the fact that it wasn’t just a musical musical, in the sense of people suddenly and without warning breaking into song for no good reason. Every word of dialogue, down to the most pedestrian remarks, was sung. A bit disturbing at first, but this operatic device worked, even with me. In the opening scene, a guy who works with one of the protagonists at a garage sings that he doesn’t like opera; give him movies instead. I could identify, ordinarily. Anyway, it made for a nice little internal joke.
If you get the opportunity to see the film sometime — it’s no longer showing at the Nick — it’s worth it just for the moments when suddenly, you recognize a tune the characters are singing. I was delighted and frustrated by this, because these tunes were very much a part of the background of the 1960s — the grownup, Muzak, “standards” part that was always playing somewhere, even though it’s not what we kids sought out. Here’s a cover of one. I’m proud that I made the connection on this one before the film was over, when suddenly my brain replaced the French words with “If it takes forever, I will wait for you.” Here’s another earworm from the film.
I had never heard of the film back in those days, but I certainly knew the tunes.
SPOILERS to follow…
That warning seems a bit unnecessary, but I’m hoping that some of you who haven’t seen it will see it sometime. As for those who have seen it, I’d be interested in what you think about how the film turned out.
As happens at the Nick, there was discussion of the film there in the theater before and after the showing. At the start, we were told that this apparently light story was set within the context of France’s traumatic experience in the Algerian War. But… I didn’t see any heavy political subtext. The structure of the film was in three parts, the first being boy-meets-girl and the second boy-leaves-girl-to-go-to-war. It could have been any conflict, or some other cause. The point was that the boy went away. There was nothing special about the fact that it was to Algiers.
Madeleine — not only was there character in her face, but she had a sort of Katharine Ross thing going on…
Then there was the ending, which in a sense was the least Hollywood thing about the film. And this is the real spoiler. We’d been set up to think it would be a terrible thing if Geneviève and Guy didn’t get back together — in conventional Hollywood terms. But from the moment Mssr. Cassard and Madeleine made their appearances, I felt that they were better mates for our star-crossed lovers. Sure, in Hollywood-values terms, Deneuve was beautiful as Geneviève — being beautiful was her specialty, especially when she was older — but Madeleine was more my type, and Guy’s, too, I thought. Not only did Ellen Farner have a kind of pre-Katharine Ross thing going on (and it was a law of movies in the ’60s — if Katharine Ross appears, you the male viewer will fall in love with her), but there was depth of character in her face. This is the girl you marry, Guy. And Messr. Cassard was more the kind of mate Geneviève needed, despite — or perhaps even because of — his over-trimmed mustache.
Anyway, I guess that’s enough on the subject of a film you probably won’t see unless you go out of your way. But it impressed me and I wanted to share that…
The psychedelic wallpaper was well ahead of its time.