The release and subsequent failure of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights to ignite the box office (and the digi-stream world) brought to mind an entirely different musical, Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Why did I make that connection in my head? Partially because we are talking about my head after all, and partially because of the bright and colorful visuals in both movies,
Unsurprisingly, that’s about it for connections between the two. In The Heights is very modern while also being that most musical of musical storytelling mechanisms, a league of young and plucky people banding together to save their neighborhood. It is propulsive and ebullient, a feel-good feature if there ever was one, and it is a shame that, thus far, it has underperformed.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, on the other hand, is a sad, romantic tragedy. It doesn’t seem that way from the start.
Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are two young lovers with a huge problem. Guy is drafted to serve in the Algerian War. The night before he leaves, the couple have a wild, romantic night, pledge themselves to each other, and consummate.
A little later, Geneviève learns she is pregnant with Guy’s child, but her communication with him at the battlefront begins to crumble. Has he moved on as Geneviève’s mother speculates, or has he died? Eventually, Geneviève concludes she has to move on as well and agrees to marry Roland, a young and wealthy man who has been trying to get closer to her.
Not long after Geneviève and Roland move away from Cherbourg, Guy returns, dealing with family tragedies and the scars of war. He finds another woman and begins to build a new life for himself. Years later, Geneviève has cause to return to the town. She stops at Guy’s “American-style” gas station. The two have a short conversation, reminiscing, describing the lives they now have, so different than the lives they thought they would have on that final, fateful night of their love.
If you are now at arms that I failed to alert for spoilers for a 57 year old film, I generously offer to you to grow up.
Besides, this is an operetta which is practically synonymous with tragedies. We know going in that these lovers are doomed, not just by the war, but by the world around them, the people in their families, particularly Geneviève’s mother who wished much more for her daughter than the lower-class Guy. She thought that, with Roland, she could move up in the world.
Further cementing the operetta status is that the movie is performed in recitative. All dialogue, as well as the songs are sung, bolstered by the remarkable music composed by Michel Legrand. As previously mentioned, the movie is mostly bright colors, thickly saturated in every scene thanks to the three-strip photochemical film process. It is absolute eye candy, more reflective of a stage set where backdrops pull double-duty in setting a scene and also engaging the audience.
The Criterion Collection Bluray edition of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is lush, and even though the term ‘glorious’ is overused to meaninglessness, there’s no other term to accurately describe it. Were it not for the inevitable melodrama yet to befall the young lovers of Cherbourg, the visual language of the film would rival the shiniest, most colorful Christmas movie you have ever seen.
If you are looking for an uplifting blast of musical theater goodness this weekend, check out In The Heights on HBO Max. But if you’re looking a sad, sweet tale of romance that jerks at your heartstrings and fills your eyes and ears with scenes sure to stick with you for years to come, do yourself a solid favor and revisit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.