This Month, We Watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Eric D. Snider

By  · Published on November 30th, 2015

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Vimeo, or for rent/purchase on iTunes). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“Guy, I love you. You smell of gasoline.” (Snider explains): My first exposure to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was actually a staged concert performance of it (in English) way back in 1999. I was smitten, but it wasn’t till several years later that I got around to seeing the movie, which I immediately fell in love with. A sad French jazz opera about star-crossed lovers? What’s not to like??

The movie is gorgeous to look at, the sets and costumes full of vivid primary colors, the cast beautiful. (Surely there were no two better-looking people in France in 1964 than Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo.) It’s very difficult to sing and act at the same time, and the film’s impact relies on both of those things being done well. Every time I see it, I’m swept up in the romance and tragedy of it all.

The reason I chose it for this project is simple: Jeff Bayer is one of my best friends, and this is the only movie I can think of that I LOVE that he hadn’t seen before. And it’s a perfect choice anyway, because it’s maybe not the sort of movie he would have expected me to love, because Will Ferrell isn’t in it.

“Am I too ugly or too stupid?” (Bayer watches): This film is exactly why this column exists. Imagine a good friend telling you this, “Let’s watch a foreign film … From 1964 … it’s a musical … nothing you’ve ever heard of … it’s very French … and oh by the way, there aren’t songs, they just sing the dialogue.” My answer simply would have been, “What else could we watch?” But when it’s assigned to me, I’m stuck. Well played, Snider. Well played.

The film begins with terribly boring opening credits that feel like they last much longer than the technical two minutes and 15 seconds. But then something happens. It’s big band jazzy music and everything starts to pop. Snider didn’t tell me the part about the singing dialogue (again, no dialogue is spoken). I was perplexed. Was a song or pattern going to emerge from this? Nope. I was ready for this to be over, until she walked in. Catherine Deneuve stars as Geneviève Emery and, damn, she’s hot. I’m talking Olivia Newton-John hot on some sliding Grease scale. The oddity is this film is only fantasy because of the singing. Otherwise, it’s a soap opera. That’s not to say there isn’t the occasional pep of dialogue. Like when Geneviève orders “something squeezed” at a bar. But then something disastrous happens. Geneviève, who at this point I’m wondering if some sort of time-traveler/alternative reality device can be created so we can live happily ever after, turns out to be 16 years old. Not cool, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, not cool at all. Thankfully, it appears Deneuve was 21 at the time, but still.

The film is a love story and you actually end up feeling the love between Geneviève (who works for her mom at the umbrella store) and Guy (Castelnuovo). He wants to own a gas station and love her until the day he dies. Unfortunately, He’s got to go off to war in Algeria for a few years. Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) is Geneviève’s mom, and she’s amazingly vain, and wants her daughter to end up with Roland (Marc Michel).

I was absolutely, positively convinced we were going to flash forward two years, and come back to find where this soap opera would lead, but we actually get snippets of time along the way. They’re almost exclusively filled with bad decisions from Geneviève. She’s pregnant with Guy’s baby, but all too quickly decides to be with Roland. I was irate, which means the young love between Guy and Geneviève worked wonders on me. It’s impossible not to feel terrible for Guy. Even when he ends up in a brothel. Heck, before the hooker and the word “shit” this movie would have been rated G. Thankfully, Guy finds happiness with another, Madeleine played by Ellen Farner. We find happiness to, right? I love her with him, even though at 1 hour and 24 minutes into the film there is the worst face petting/hand rubbing of all time in a film. Prove me wrong! Then, two minutes later I was terribly nervous. I didn’t think we were going to get a happy ending. Even though all of my worst thoughts (car crash, etc) were wrong, the ending of the film is very cold and sad. It stuck with me for a while. Even Guy doesn’t come off well in the end. He’s ignoring his child. That whole plot point was something I just couldn’t get over.

Here’s some randomness for Snider to think about. Do you know of other opera-like movies such as this? At the 17-minute mark, a mailperson walks into the shop. I loved learning how mail was delivered with this little tray, and this is the role I would cast for you in the remake. Geneviève proves to be a magician making a huge fire at the 33-minute mark. All the more reason to love her (until she marries Roland). Geneviève drinks and smokes while pregnant. You’ve got to respect it. The film references movies a few times, which is another level of obvious fantasy I found interesting. Finally, are you ready for the worst/best idea of all time in remake history? Anne Hathaway dyes her hair blonde and plays Geneviève. Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes all French again and plays Guy. Those two actors can be great, have been great, but also can easily fall into Broadway children actors. It would be a shot-for-shot, line-for-line English remake, and it would be the worst/best thing ever. Cast the rest of the key roles for me, won’t you?

Movie Score: 7/10

“Stop crying. Look at me. People only die of love in movies.” (Snider responses): One of the things I enjoy about Umbrellas is that it’s totally honest and relatable even though it comes from such a different time and place. It was socially acceptable for a 20-year-old man to date a 16-year-old girl (you notice it’s not Guy’s age that Genevieve’s mother objects to), and it wasn’t even particularly scandalous if he happened to knock her up, or if she smoked and drank. Nor was there any expectation that he would be involved in his child’s life after the mother had married someone else. It all seems distasteful now, but things were different 55 years ago. Why, in those days, you could make ends meet in a small town by running a store that only sold umbrellas! At least for a while, anyway.

As always, your idea for a remake is terrible and unnecessary. Here are my contributions: Genevieve’s mom should be played by Kathy Bates, Roland should be played by one of the guys from Workaholics (any of them), Madeleine should be a computer-animated robot, and Guy’s dying aunt should be played by Tyler Perry in a dress. There.

Sung-through musicals (as they’re called when they don’t have spoken dialogue) aren’t very common, but there are some. On stage, Les Miserables, Evita, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Miss Saigon, Rent, and The Last Five Years are totally or almost totally sung. Most of them stuck to that when they got turned into movies. As for movies not based on stage musicals, I don’t know of any besides The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that don’t have any spoken dialogue. It seems unlikely that Umbrellas is the only one, but maybe?

Jeff, did the movie make you consider the idea of coordinating your outfits so they match the color of the walls in your house? Or of painting your walls bright, vivid colors? I recommend it.

In an alternate universe, this movie ends with Guy and Genevieve getting back together: the happy ending. Do you think that version would necessarily be better or worse than this one? Does the tragic aspect make it a better film? Or would it be a better film if it offered a more traditionally satisfying resolution? You can probably guess what I think, but I’m curious what you think.

Finally, did the town of Cherbourg remind you of Cannes? Remember the time we went to Cannes? It was basically like Cherbourg, without the singing.

“I think you can go.” (Bayer concludes): You know my wife dresses me, and decides all colors in our house. You’ll have to convince her on changing any of those things in my life. The film would be less memorable if it was a happy ending. I didn’t expect to feel cold at the end of the film, but it’s very effective. Yes, times were different with smoking, drinking, and leaving kids behind. But I’m stuck in 2015, and was even disappointed in Don Draper’s parenting at the end of Mad Men, even though I now feel bad complaining about Don. I like that it’s not a clean, happy ending, mainly because they had gone too far, changed too much. It was the perfection of young love, which most of the time, is best when left in the past.

Cannes now feels like a missed opportunity. Thanks. We could have been singing the entire time, especially while getting those baguettes and croissants and now I’m just drooling over everything.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Jenna Busch selected Metropolis (1927). It is available on Netflix. Your due date is December 31.