I gasped in audiovisual delight at the end of this film! Just as a higher expression of praise, I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence for me, but it isn’t – I am currently going through the top 250 films on Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll at the speed of light (only 47 left now!) and thus have experiences like this roughly three times a week. But let me disregard all that! This film, the story of a ruined premature love, has made me happy beyond measure!
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was my first Jacques Demy film, my second film starring Catherine Deneuve (after watching Bunuel’s grumpier Belle de Jour (1967), where she plays a disaffected housewife-prostitute) and a brilliant journey into a parallel realm of wallpaper, mid-century French singing, Disney-tier costume design and melodrama. I say Disney-tier – at different points, Deneuve’s styling reminded me of Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I have no doubt this was intentional. These were my favourite films as a very young child, and I think I finally understand the cult of adult Disney fans: it was lovely to see my first memories of visual storytelling brought back in live-action, while gaining extra cultural profit from the film’s Nouvelle Vague associations. (Everyone will think I’m so sophisticated for watching another 1960s French film, says my inherently sneaky consciousness, when really it was just as easy to sit through as any American Technicolor musical! I am pulling off a long con!)
Obviously I went immediately to Google Scholar and made a desperate ‘jacques demy’ search afterwards, trying to scrape some random knowledge together to justify what I had seen and to make amends to this man, whom I had sadly overlooked for my entire film-watching life. I dodged past several ‘Look at This Super Queer Cinema, This Analysis Isn’t Regressive At All’ type articles (though happily learning that some critics call his cinematic universe the ‘Demy-Monde’) and finally managed to find something interesting on JSTOR, a Cinema Journal article by Rodney Hill which contextualised his films in relation to the rest of the French New Wave.
I was, it can be said, taken aback by Umbrellas and its total contrast to everything I knew of this period of French cinema. I was half-expecting one of the characters to turn around and pull out a gun, or to sink into a discussion of Jean Paul Sartre, or for the film’s narrative to loop back on itself. Why isn’t Catherine Deneuve getting stomped on by some random man, I thought to myself, recalling Belle de Jour and sadly going back to my old habit of assigning every actor their own special archetype based on the only film I’d seen them in. Anyway, as I learnt from Hill’s article, Umbrellas is a sort of fusion of the Nouvelle Vague and the older, glossier French ‘Tradition of Quality’, contrasting a teenage pregnancy storyline and raw heartbreak with smooth art design and very pretty singing. By mixing these two traditions, Demy betrays both the realist New Wave and the uptight Tradition of Quality. And is this not the ultimate French New Wave – the Nouveau Tsunami?
(This is not why we purchased an institutional subscription to JSTOR, my university screeches in protest. Go and download some papers on morphological ergativity instead.)
Here are some visual things I liked:
I absolutely love Chinoiserie and Oriental elements in Western interior design, and obviously that extends to film. There are legitimate aesthetic reasons to enjoy these things, and I am actually not a nineteenth-century Orientalist, even though I very often pretend to be (I watched this film in Chinese subtitles because it was easier to find that way!). Anyway, I loved Genevieve’s writing set and this is probably why.
I was generally obsessed with the fact that the characters lived in this apartment, which struck me as a scaled-down Versailles, and could even match their outfits to the wallpaper, but were also so destitute that they had to sell off jewellery in little shops? It struck me as wonderfully haughty and campy and was the kind of plot hole I wholeheartedly appreciate. It seemed as if Demy was so fixated on aesthetic value that he was opposed to showing any physical degradation on-screen – the film rotates around a war in Algeria which we never really see, but only hear about from a cursive letter – and that makes me love him.
I could sort of sense some timely psychedelia coming through, ie. sometimes the colours all bled into each other and just looked like this. Interesting. Usually the makeup, hair and colour grading in 1960s films is very distinctive and instantly dates the production compared to any other decade of cinema (I plan to look into this, but you might know what I mean?), but I do feel that Umbrellas could have been made at any point in either the 60s or 70s, which is quite special – relative timelessness.
a) I love snow and ice in films and have done since the post-duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and b), Cherbourgeoise??? Hello??? Truly a filmmaker after my own heart.
I can’t wait to delve further into the Demy-Monde! Goodbye for now,