The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a very unusual film – an experiment that created one of the most unique and enchanting movies ever made. What makes it so different is that the entire thing is sung, but even so you wouldn’t describe it as either an opera or a musical. It’s somewhere inbetween, while also being a surprisingly straightforward movie. Most of it is essentially sung dialogue, so when the garage attendant asks whether someone wants Regular or Super petrol, he sings it. Jacques Demy wrote a normal screenplay and then Michel Legrand put it to music, so it really isn’t quite like anything else.
That sounds as if it would be dreadful, contrived and rather stupid, and because of that – as well as the fact they’re singing in French – it’s often difficult to convince people to watch it. However they should, as it’s a truly wonderful, magical film. Michel Legrand’s incredible score fuses jazz with other musical style to make the sung dialogue seem natural, with the music working to underline the emotional power of what is happening.
Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) is a 17-year-old living with her umbrella shop owning mother in Cherbourg in 1957. She’s desperately in love with 20-year-old mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and wants to marry him. However her mother says she’s too young and Guy isn’t mature enough for her child.
When Guy gets called up to serve in the military during the Algerian War, the couple vow to wait for one another, and just before he leaves they share a night of passion. Despite their declarations, with Guy away they slowly start to drift apart, not least because Geneviève is pregnant and unsure what to do. When wealthy gem dealer Roland (Marc Marcel) starts showing an interest in her, Geneviève’s mother encourages her to marry him.
It’s not a particularly complex story and without the music it might have seemed a little small, but the tunes bring to the surface the feelings of those involved, from the extreme attachment of teen romance, to lost love and fear for the futur. You may recognise some of the film’s musical themes, which became the English-language songs I Will Wait For You and Watch What Happens. The first of those has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Cher to Liza Minnelli and Tony Bennett. The Connie Francis version is one of the most achingly romantic recordings ever, and even played a key role in one of the most iconic moment in TV’s Futurama.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a glorious movie, with the music and emotion backed up by glorious cinematography, which uses splashes of bright colour to create a world that’s halfway between real and fantasy. It’s a world where romance is heightened but reality is always waiting to suck you back to the ground. For the film’s 50th Anniversary the movie has been given an extensive clean-up and restoration, which really brings out what a beautiful film it is. Although there’s still a little grain, it hasn’t been overcleaned, which with a movie like this would have been easy to do. There are a few shots that look oddly fuzzy, but largely this Blu-ray release is clear, crisp and great to look at.
The treats on this new release don’t end there as there’s an excellent selection of special features, including a fascinating 90-minute look into the world of director Jacques Demy, who made plenty of other interesting movies as well as The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Indeed while Demy is not as famous as others who came along with the French New Wave, such as Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, his more approachable movies have arguably had a larger impact on mainstream cinema.
The disc also contains a well-made and informative look back at the making of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, including interviews with those involved (at least those still alive). There’s an 80-minute audio interview with Catherine Deneuve, while other such as Geoff Andrew and actress Virginie Ledoyen look back on the importance of the movie. It’s a great package for a glorious film.
Overall Verdict: It may sometime be difficult to convince people to watch a completely sung movie, but they really should as The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is one of the enchanting films ever made. And this 50th Anniversary release looks good and is packed with added treats.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac