Dir: Jacques Demy (Donkey Skin)
Here at I Just Saw, we (0r I) are all about combatting irrational prejudices. Personal growth and the development of tolerance compell us to confront our dislikes and put them to the test in the Millian sense. For me, watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is no such exercise; I find it sublime. But watching this film may shatter some of the prejudices of this blog's faithful readers.
It is a simple and sweet (#1) operetta (#2) in French (#3). Most of you are OK with 3, but are you ready for 1 & 2?
1. The film tells the story of two young lovers, Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Their bid to break free of poverty and her protecrtive mother and start a life is put on hold when Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria. In the second act, Genevieve struggles with another suitor while reconsidering her love for Guy. The story is free of artifice or cynicism, no quirks or tricks, almost workaday. But in the heartbreaking third act, the film touchingly explores the fact that life goes on after any trauma. It is one of my favorite endings in film. I know that we have all been taught to roll our eyes at such a narrative, that the writer must dazzle us with tricks or the characters all have to be quirky. Our great love stories are now about the bizarre or criminals or the outcast. I challenge movie watchers today to reconnect with the archetypal, and yet still learn something beautiful about the human condition.
2. But of course, this film does have a quirk, a glorious one. Every word is sung. This blog has recently gone on a run of French films influenced by American detective and gangster movies. Here, Demy is trying to recreate the spirit and freedom of the American musical. Unlike an opera, where the dialgoue is often heavy and poetic, here the lines are really no different than if it was a spoken film. After work, men sing to each other about their dates for the evening. A customer walks into a store, and he sings about how is looking for an umbrella. This natural, relaxed dialogue saves the book from being overwrought. The score is jazzy and briskly paced. A descending tonal pattern provides the thematic link between the different scenes, but it is not nearly as "song" oriented as other operettas. Often, the fact that they are singing can be forgotten, as this is just spoken word put to music. The effect is exhilirating, as the combination of melodic expression heigtens both the climactic and the banal moments. See especially the parting of the two characters at the end of the first act. So many people nowadays reject musicals, but this film is a great example of what I love about them. If you can give the characters the freedom to express themselves in song, then you have an entire new medium in which to understand them.
#3. Not to mention the fact that the French sounds very beautiful sung like that.
Earlier in my life I would have ranked this among my favorite movies of all time. I now count the fact that the lead actors do not do their own singing againt it. But The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a completely refreshing, engaging spectacle, one of the most original and pretty films you will ever see.
And before you post nasty comments, fellow bloggers, you may not personally feel you have these prejudices, I still think you do. So don't argue against me.