The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Genre: Romantic Drama and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.

Release Date: December 16th, 1964 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jacques Demy Actors: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, J. Champion, P. Caden, J.P. Dorat




t begins with a very upbeat, jazzy score, as an auto mechanic speaks with a car owner – in a conversation in which every word is sung. Despite each exchange gaining melodic notes, the interactions remain genuine and the characters don’t talk to themselves, though it would have been easy to fall into that stagey narrative technique. Instead, the opera qualities are played down, lending to a more straightforward musical that has universal appeal, largely thanks to the pleasantness of the singing, the abundance of emotions through facial expressions, the vividness of the costumes and sets, the bittersweet realism of the plot, and the absolutely haunting main theme tune.

“Part One: The Departure” starts in November of 1957, when the young worker, Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), is unable to stay late due to a very important date with store clerk Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve). They’re set to go to the theater to see “Carmen” and, afterwards, to go dancing. Throughout the night, the couple speaks gaily about having children, buying a gas station or umbrella shop to operate, and staying in love forever. But, at just 16 years old, Geneviève is certain her mother will disapprove of her marriage plans.

Sure enough, when Geneviève admits that she’s in love, her widowed mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), tells her she’s too young and inexperienced to contemplate such things. Her mother’s annoyance is cut short when she learns that she must pay 80,000 francs or lose her longstanding business, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She goes to jeweler Mr. Dubourg (Harald Wolff) to sell her cherished pearl necklace, but his finances prevent him from purchasing the piece. The refined and wealthy (yet somehow suspicious) diamond dealer Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), in the store at the time, offers to write a check for the pearls to get her out of the bind.

Following a plot of classically star-crossed lovers, the lead duo’s forbidden union grows ever more ill-fated, especially when Guy receives his draft notice for two years in the service for the war in Algeria. Additionally, Guy’s elderly godmother Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey), with whom he lives, is in poor enough health that she isn’t likely to survive to see his return. “Part Two: The Absence” picks up in 1958, with Geneviève sulking inconsolably, upset that two months have passed with only one written correspondence from Guy. To complicate the situation, Geneviève is pregnant; Cassard is interested in her hand in marriage as well, even after learning of her predicament; and Elise’s nurse Madeleine (Ellen Farner) is clearly in love with Guy. By “Part Three: The Return,” relationships have diminished, shifted, and become altogether mysterious.

Though the scenario adopts the styling of a tragedy, the accompanying music stays consistently peppy, never quite giving in to the dramatic sincerity of the seemingly doomed couple. However, the occasional interspersing of the Academy Award-winning love song “I Will Wait for You” (with lyrics by writer/director Jacques Demy himself) never fails to bring a tear to the eye. The cinematography is strikingly colorful, with all of the costumes, lights, building walls, food, props, and the titular umbrellas of patronizing passerby splashed with vibrant hues – to such an extent that it looks like no other film before it. Subtly borrowing from the sorrow-tinged blend of lighthearted romance and the darker drama of adult conditions seen in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the themes of future prospects versus childish ideals and the interfering nature of fate correspond with Elise’s claims that happiness makes her sad (or Madame Emery’s insistence that people only die of love in the movies). It’s melancholy yet grandly romantic, with unforgettable music by Michel Legrand and a conclusion that screams of forlorn yet poignant cinematic perfection.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10