Judge Bryan Pope found that this film was much like "Romeo and Juliet", but with a lot less killing.
Our review of The Essential Jacques Demy (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published August 22nd, 2014, is also available.
"A film for all the young lovers of the world."
What is it about France that sends filmmakers into a frenzy of unabashed romanticism? Don't believe me? Check out Gigi, An American in Paris and, for something more contemporary, Amélie. Better yet, check out Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a charming French film that has been given a stunning DVD treatment courtesy of Koch Vision.
Facts of the Case
Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and her mother run an umbrella shop in 1930s Cherbourg, France. Day in and day out, she pines for Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic at a nearby garage. Her mother does not approve of the relationship and constantly urges Geneviève to date other men, but Geneviève and Guy are hopelessly in love. So goes life until, one day, Guy is called to war, and their lives change forever.
With its story about two naïve lovers torn away from each other by bitter circumstance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a valentine to young, unbridled, to-the-end-of-time passion. Think of it as "Romeo and Juliet" without the iambic pentameter. Oh, and with a lot less killing.
Like most melodramas, Umbrellas uses every storytelling contrivance imaginable to get us to shed tears. To wit: Guy is shipped off to war just as his and Geneviève's love is in full bloom. Geneviève discovers that she is going to have Guy's baby. Her mother is about to lose their umbrella shop and fall into financial ruin. Did I mention that Guy has left behind an ailing aunt? Meanwhile, the film ticks off the passing seasons, and still Guy doesn't return. Clearly, Demy is willing to stop at nothing to break our hearts, and by all rights his film should not work. But I'll be damned if this isn't one of the most captivating films I've ever seen.
The film is divided into three acts (with title cards signifying the beginning of each), and, during the second act, the film feels ready to collapse under the weight of despair. Somehow, though, it never does. Umbrellas is so obviously a fantasy that the story can sustain the weight and still float effortlessly. In fact, the eye-popping production design and romantic score make this the most cheerful tearjerker you're likely to find.
Demy's France is the France of our imagination, or at least of Hollywood's imagination. It's almost as much a product of make-believe as the wonderful Land of Oz. Every street and shop hums with color and texture, every glance and gesture is a sweeping display of emotion, and every word is a melody (quite literally, in this case, as the entire script is set to Michel Legrand's jazzy and lush score). If this is what France is really like, I'm investing in some singing lessons and booking the next flight to Paris.
Although Umbrellas was originally conceived as a paean to the beauty and pain of young love, it has since become more famous as the movie that launched the legendary and radiant Catherine Deneuve to international stardom. She possesses a certain je ne sais quois that makes her irresistible. Who wouldn't fall in love with her? When she sends Guy off to war at the end of the first act, she projects so much youthful innocence and idealism that there's no way her happiness isn't going to be squashed by circumstance.
For most people, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg probably isn't an accurate depiction of what love is like, but I would argue that it depicts what most people want love to be like: passionate, perfectly scored, and with marvelous set design. Take the inevitable climax outside Guy's service station, where Geneviève and Guy say their final goodbyes. The lighting is flawless, and the two lovers look fashion-plate perfect. As they embrace one last time, the impossibly clean snow floats perfectly around them and Umbrellas's love theme swells to dizzying heights. Is it over the top? Absolutely. But it works, and so does the rest of the movie. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as maudlin and sentimental as movies come, and this hopeless romantic wouldn't have it any other way.
Because The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a rich celebration of color and sound, it's imperative that it receive a fantastic transfer, and I'm happy to report that it does. It is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it is given an anamorphic transfer. My understanding is that this transfer is a vast improvement over the previous Region One release. I've never seen that edition, but this one does indeed look spectacular. The film's many colors are sharp and vibrant, and the picture has very few noticeable flaws. I imagine this is the best Umbrellas has looked since its initial release. Kudos to the team responsible for restoring this gem.
The French soundtrack is provided in Dolby 5.1 Surround, and it sounds beautiful. Legrand's bold music is projected nicely, especially during the heavily orchestrated sections (such as the final scene). All musicals should sound this fantastic.
The disc includes a 15-minute excerpt from Agnes Varda's The World of Jacques Demy. This documentary is a nice extra, featuring comments from many people who were involved with Umbrellas, but it's too short. It whets our appetite and leaves us wanting to know more about Demy and his work. Also included are trailers for Children of the Century, On Guard, Very Annie Mary, God is Great, I Am Not and Safe Conduct.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a cinematic treasure, walking away with the Grand Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and nabbing five Oscar nominations. At less than $25, I highly recommend it as a purchase.
With a song in my heart, I proclaim this movie not guilty. Koch Vision is thanked for the stellar work done on this classic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Jacques Demy Featurette
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