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Melancholy Melody: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) – Blu-ray review

February 6, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

“Life’s a happy song, when there’s someone by your side to sing along,” reckoned the Muppets. The opposite also applies – especially in France.

The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
(Jacques Demy, 1964)

One of the most common assertions made about musicals is that they are pure escapism: a retreat from reality. Yet what happens when they confront the complexities of life head-on? The joy of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is that it can tackle the most mundane and melancholy of situations and make them sing – literally so.

Jacques Demy’s approach is so simple it’s a wonder so few filmmakers have followed suit. This is an opera on screen, with every line of dialogue – even when directing a passer-by to the right shop or discussing what’s arrived in the post – sung with the same tunefulness as a declaration of love. It should, by rights, be awful but Demy’s immersion is total. In a way, it’s easier to adjust than the conventional “and then they stop to sing” take on the genre, because it is so consistent.

And the musical elements are matched visually. Demy’s recreation of Cherbourg is one of the most fastidiously art-directed fantasies in cinema. Like so many of his peers in the French New Wave, Demy loved Hollywood and this is his reclamation of the trend – witnessed in An American In Paris and Funny Face – to use France as a shorthand for chic. Here, the elegance is homegrown: newcomer Deneuve radiates chic and the luminous décor and enviable costumes are colour-coded to resemble an explosion in the rainbow factory. Restored on Blu-ray, the Technicolor outstrips Oz.

In stills, it is close to being gaudy and kitsch, but on screen it comes alive because Demy’s sense of camera movement is so fluid. The camera becomes a participant, tracking and pirouetting in impossible back-and-forth shots that defy our awareness that there is a crew behind them. The coups are dazzling, especially a perfectly-framed shot into two mirrors, or a conversation that takes place with a bustling, full-of-extras carnival taking place in the background. The actors complained that they were little more than marionettes, miming to pre-recording dialogue and minutely positioned where Demy needed them – but it’s effective.

In contrast to the cinematic splendour, the story – mechanic Nino Castelnuovo gets girlfriend Catherine Deneuve pregnant, and she reluctantly marries a rich suitor while he’s away on military service – is a mere wisp, the stuff of soap operas. But that’s precisely the point. Demy is celebrating the experiences of his country’s youth, a generation on the cusp of change from war-time authority into the freewheeling 1960s. Father figures are noticeably absent, and Castelnuovo ‘s army time is politicised with direct reference to the era-defining war in Algeria.

The youngsters’ love is palpable, a breaking free of social strictures – and the genre heightens it. But Demy’s masterstroke is not to sugar-coat it. This couldn’t be more French if it tried, with sex out of wedlock, prostitution and an all-consuming ennui all facts of life in a port town. Despite the joy and vibrancy of the film’s look and feel, the story is increasingly downbeat, refusing the obvious happy ending in lieu of one that is, not sad exactly but more bittersweet, more true to life, more dramatically effective and surprisingly moving.

The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is released on Blu-ray on Monday 10th February.  Aside from the pin-sharp transfer (you can see the bits where the wallpaper hasn’t been applied properly!) this benefits from two length documentaries and a typically erudite introduction from BFI programmer Geoff Andrew.

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