(director/writer: Jacques Demy; cinematographer: Jean Rabier; editor: Monique Teissure; cast: Catherine Deneuve (Genevieve Emery), Nino Castelnuovo (Guy Foucher), Anne Vernon (Mrs. Emery), Marc Michel (Roland Cassard), Ellen Farner (Madeleine), Mireille Perrey (Aunt Elise); Runtime: 92; Parc/Madeleine; 1964-Fr.)

“The actors sing their lines rather than just say them.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written an enticing review on the merits of Jacques Demy and his film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He compares Demy to the great Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu. The similarities between the works of these two is, indeed, striking, since they both made films devoted to the normalcy of the family structure, keen on preserving the daily traditional rituals of each of their cultures; while curiously enough, both men were deviant of their culture’s sexual mores. Demy being married to the director Agnes Varda was nevertheless considered to be bi-sexual, dying of AIDS in 1990. While Ozu, a bachelor, was thought to be gay. That both men achieved excellent success in their films by portraying the human condition through the eyes of so-called ‘normal’ lifestyles is, indeed, a curious oddity.

Umbrellas is made into an opera-like film by composer Michel Legrand. The actors sing their lines rather than just say them. The film itself is lushly colored in pastels, offering a very brilliantly color-coordinated production. It tells the story of two young lovers in Cherbourg, in 1957, the 17-year-old salesgirl in her mother’s umbrella shop, Genevieve (Deneuve), and the 20-year-old garage mechanic, Guy (Nino). They plan to get married, but the war in Algeria changes their plans when to Guy’s dismay he receives a draft notice.

Genevieve’s mother, Mrs. Emery (Anne), every inch of her body is bourgeois, objects to the marriage because she is too young to know what love is. When her business assumes great debts, she goes with her attractive daughter to try and sell her jewels but is rebuffed by the jeweler; but, a rich young man in the store comes to the rescue by buying the jewels. He’s a diamond merchant, and adds he will not lose money. It turns out that this is Roland Cassard (Marc), the rejected suitor from Demy’s first feature film Lola. He couldn’t stay at home when Lola spurned him. He went traveling to find himself and became extremely wealthy. The mother is impressed with Roland’s good manners and kindness, and feels he would be a protective husband for her daughter.

The last date Guy and Genevieve have before he goes into the army turns out to be significant — it is the first time they sleep together. As a result she becomes pregnant, which she keeps a secret. Their departure at the railroad station is full of promises of marriage, being true to each other, and their love being forever. But Guy turns out to be a poor letter writer and Genevieve is disappointed in not hearing from him for long stretches. He probably doesn’t write because he develops a limp when hit by a hand-grenade and doesn’t want to worry her. But Genevieve’s mother pushes her to Roland, taking advantage of her confused state; and, he proposes, quite willing to take her child as his own. And so she marries the one she doesn’t love. Guy is not aware of this marriage until he comes home from the war in 1959.

Guy becomes bitter and has trouble adjusting to civilian life; after a squabble with his boss at the garage, he decides to quit his mechanic’s job and live off his army pension he obtains from his war wound. When his godmother, Aunt Elise (Mireille), dies, she leaves him enough money so he can buy his own gas station. On the rebound, he asks the sweet girl, Madeleine (Ellen), who devotedly took care of his sick aunt to marry him, even though he doesn’t love her.

It is now 1963: Guy and Madeleine have a son. It is snowing and they are happily decorating their Christmas tree in his Esso station. As soon as Madeleine and her son go out for a walk, a Mercedes pulls in with Genevieve and her daughter. Guy is startled to see her. This is the first time they have met since he went into the army. They talk inside his office, exchanging banalities, but not saying what is on their mind. Guy doesn’t know that he has a daughter, and refuses Genevieve’s offer to meet her little girl. Genevieve never tells him about why she married, or of his daughter. She drives back to Paris when Guy says, “I think you’d better go.”… Guy’s wife soon returns and he starts playing with his kid.

Their class differences were well-mapped out in the final scene: he has moved up the ladder to middle-class prosperity. She has become upper-class. Their lack of communication is now complete. He has never met her husband, and does not realize that it was her husband’s Mercedes that he serviced on the day we first see him happily rushing off to date Genevieve.

This story doesn’t seem to be much on paper, but it is as poignant as it is ordinary. It is one that happens most of the time, of people marrying by chance rather than the reverse being true of people marrying for love. And that is Demy’s point: that coincidences, luck, and good timing seem to matter even more than love in marriage.

Everything about this film was done to perfection. Demy is one of the most underrated directors of French cinema. American audiences rarely get a chance to see his great body of films, and that is surely their loss.