THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG
Review by Zimmerman Skyrat, 101Bananas.com, January 2005
OK, so back in 1964 this French cat named Jacques Demy decides to make the ultimate chick flick of all time and gets the maddeningly insane idea that not only will he have the standard boy meets girl story with every standard expected plot twist, but no, that’s not enough, he’ll have all the actors—dig this—SING all of their lines! For the whole movie! Wild, huh? Those French froggies! You gotta give ’em credit for the effort.
So that makes it not only a sappy love story, but a musical to boot, and now untold thousands of men in red-state by-God America grit their teeth and curse Jacques Demy under their breath when they hear, “Oh, look honey, there’s a French cinema retrospective at the university, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is playing tonight!”
Now don’t get me wrong here. I got nothing against sappy love stories—I LOVED Fatal Attraction—heh heh heh—but if I ever pull into an auto shop and the mechanics are singing gently to each other—in French—I’m haulin’ ass outta there for some other garage. I ain’t one of them funny guys. But that’s exactly what we get in the first scene of Umbrellas. Oh, those French!
As it turned out, monsieur Demy’s film was quite successful, financially and critically. At the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, it was awarded that Palme d’Or thingie that the hoity-toity film crowd in France hand out to their favorite films; it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; it made him forever famous as the director who made a film with all the dialog being sung; Hollywood came calling; and he lived happily ever after until 1990, when he died. And we musn’t forget that Umbrellas skyrocketed the exquisite 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve to worldwide fame and a long film career, for which we should be eternally grateful to monsieur Demy.
The simple plot of Umbrellas could be summarized quickly. Working-class Boy, who is a mechanic, meets working-class Girl, who helps her mom in a store selling umbrellas. (Actually, they met before the film begins, because they’re already madly in love at the beginning of the movie.) Girl’s mother doesn’t approve, so they can’t get married. Boy gets draft notice and has to leave for two years. Girl discovers she’s pregnant. Boy doesn’t write much, and Girl gradually thinks he’s forgotten her. Girl is persuaded by mom to marry rich guy who will take care of her and her child. Boy returns from service and learns Girl has married and left Cherbourg. Heartbroken, he marries long-time secret admirer, buys a gas station and goes into business. Several years later Girl returns to Cherbourg and just happens to pull into Boy’s gas station in her big expensive car, with her (and his) daughter in the seat next to her. Boy and Girl say one last goodbye. The End.
Now that’s fine as far as it goes, but what I wasn’t able to figure out is the hidden symbolic meaning of those damned umbrellas. I mean, remember, the movie was released less than a year after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, where that mysterious guy dressed in black opened his umbrella on the sidewalk just as JFK passed, in order to signal the grassy knoll gunman. Other than that, ya got me on any obscure references Demy may have been making. Perhaps it is best not to delve too deeply into French film symbology, for as Wittgenstein famously said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” If I were writing the screenplay though, the Girl would’ve had a more believable job, like maybe selling crippled hamsters in a pet store for disabled animals or something.
A minor quibble perhaps, but then finally after all that singing and endless mon amours and je t’aimes the movie ends, and we never even got a peek at Catherine Deneuve’s boobies. Not even once! Bummer....