May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 13, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at Image Facts.)
This is one of the more surprising turn of events in New Wave history. Here is a director that many mistakenly considered, and still consider, to be a minor director. Over the opening credits stands an overhead shot of an anonymous square with rain falling straight down around the lens. As if on cue, people start walking and riding bicycles under the lens beneath umbrellas in brilliant primary colors. Reds, greens, yellows slide across the screen with the unashamed artificiality of a Mondrian painting. It all feels irrepressibly modern. In the next shot, his camera then pulls into the equally theatrically greasy maw of a busy Cherbourg garage, and everybody starts singing to each other. In perfect pitch these mechanics sing to each other in the slang and idiom they would use in everyday speech about everyday things. And it all rhymes wonderfully.
And even more surprisingly, everybody keeps singing to each other until the film is over and even the most indifferent spectator of musical theater (that would be me) doesn’t bat an eye. The film takes its name from an umbrella shop in which lives a middle-class widow and her daughter Genevieve. Genevieve (it is surprising how many things rhyme with that name) falls in love with Guy, a mechanic in the aforementioned garage, right before he is shipped off to the Algeria war for a few years. When Genevieve discovers she is pregnant, her mother manages to shift her affections to a dashing diamond merchant that will not only be a good husband to her, but will solve their financial problems as well. When Guy returns from the war he finds the umbrella shop closed and the love of his life comfortably appointed in the upper class.
During his time overseas though, his doting aunt Elise has died, leaving him enough of an inheritance to buy and manage an Esso gas station on the edge of Cherbourg. He then marries his aunt’s lovely nurse and everything works out as sadly and comfortably as we expect things to end in musical theater. One snowy Christmas Eve years later, while his wife and little boy are out for a walk, Genevieve pulls up to his gas station in a sleek Mercedes with Guy’s daughter. Their gently sung conversation (“How are things going?”…“Things are going well.”) is as strained as it is disheartening. But when the camera pulls back to its closing shot we know through this polite exchange that all is well in Cherbourg.
Though its plotline is as simple as Demy’s other films, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is much more than the sum of its parts. Demy here blends his preoccupation with the banal details of lower and middle class France with a vigorous re-staging of Cherbourg as a technicolor fantasy that enriches the tired and common routines of its residents. It is said that Demy had whole sections of Cherbourg repainted to increase this effect, and we become used to Genevieve always matching the wallpaper in whatever room she is in, or we don’t bat an eye when the mailman never seems to clash with the careful and luminous interior design of the umbrella shop (I didn’t know pink and lime green could look so positively bourgeois).
In one terrific shot, Guy and Genevieve are walking home from an evening of dancing. It is not enough for Demy to have these two in love, singing to each other, and walking through his pleasantly modified Cherbourg. He places both them and the camera on a dolly so that they literally float through the alley to his flat. I don’t think this sort of shot worked so well again until it popped up in the middle of Lee’s 25th Hour. The hackneyed transcendence of the moment is invigorating. This same sort of innovation occurs often in the film. In one transition, Demy points the camera straight up at the branches of cherry trees in bloom over a country road. He lingers on these blossoms against the sky long enough to make an interesting visual point. Moulin Rouge was lauded as a step forward for both musical theater and film design, but Demy outdid Baz Luhrmann in this regard before Luhrmann even had the idea. Where Baz was dependent on endlessly repeatable riffs on pop culture and a fantastical array of special effects, Demy here is essence creating pop culture with some wallpaper and a few cans of paint. He is narrating the loves and losses of the lower classes in perfect harmonies, turning their special idiom into a soundtrack.