The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ranks among my all-time favorite movies. Yet a dozen people walked out of the theater after 15 minutes when I first saw the film. More so than with most movies, Umbrellas is a film you either love or you hate.
Umbrellas is an opera celebrating the mundane. Guy, our hero, is a humble mechanic; our heroine, Geneviève, a clerk in her mother’s umbrella store. Taken as a whole, the story reflects average people making human decisions. However, scene by scene the emotion is huge, worthy of being told as an opera.
Director Jacques Demy uses color melodramatically. The film’s look is incredible. Every shot is packed with rich, vivid colors. There are almost no muted tones or gray anywhere in the whole movie. One room will have bright pink wallpaper; the next will have purple swirled with orange. Outside, the alleys are painted bright blue and green and the dance hall is a solid, bright red. The costumes are often just as vivid and often the same hue as the background. The effect is dizzying and unmatched by any other film.
Likewise, the music is vivid and youthful. Michel Legrand wrote the jazz score for the film. By necessity some of the dialogue is couched in un-hummable “recitatives,” but the “arias” are recognizable, mature compositions, some of which have made it into the permanent repertoire of jazz standards (“I Will Wait for You,” and “Watch What Happens”).
The story is presented in three parts: The Departure, The Absence, and The Return. It opens at a garage where Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is telling his friends about his big date with Geneviève. They’re going to see the opera Carmen, then go out dancing. (One of his friends remarks, in song of course, “I don’t like operas. Movies are better. All that singing gives me a pain.”)
Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) works at an umbrella store with her mother, who wants her to marry someone with more money. So when Geneviève goes out with Guy she has to do it behind mom’s back.
The two make a charming, happy couple, and they profess their undying love. But one day Guy gets a letter from the government. He’s drafted into the French army for two years’ service. The once-happy couple parts at the train station, crying “je taime,” with all their hearts.
Picture and Sound
The color of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was very important to director Jacques Demy. He knew that color film stock, even if well-kept, would fade over time. So when the movie was completed, he arranged for a three-color separation to be made on three separate black-and-white films (black and white stock does not fade the way color stock does).
In 1989, Demy and his wife Agnes Varda (also a filmmaker), along with composer Legrand started the process of restoring Umbrellas. Demy died before the restoration was complete, but his wife and Legrand saw the project to completion, and in 1992, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was re-released in eye-popping, vivid color, the likes of which had not been seen for decades.
I have the Criterion Collection LaserDisc of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which looks very good. But the colors on the DVD are even richer and more vivid. Solid areas of black are more stable on a DVD, which sets off the colors even better. DVD is the only home format to watch this movie on.
Yet there are places where even the DVD can’t reproduce the detail very well. For example, most of the wallpaper is patterned. In one shot, thin green stripes on a pink background become distorted as the camera moves back. Only the 35mm film version has enough resolution to render that level of detail.
The sound is encoded as Dolby surround. Part of the restoration process was overseen by Michel Legrand, and one can only assume that Umbrellas sounds just as he intended it. In any case, I have no complaints about the sound.
The DVD has the usual stuff in its supplement. There is a trailer (for the restoration version) and filmographies for the stars and filmmakers. There is also a brief text-only section that tells the story of the restoration.
As usual, the supplement isn’t interesting enough to be the sole reason to buy the DVD. However, you should get the disc for the breathtaking video transfer and for the heartfelt, moving film.