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A Little Piece of Heaven

Once He Loved a Woman: Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve navigate the stormy channels of romance in Jacques Demy's proletariat opera "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

In 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,' Jacques Demy created the perfect dream of France

By Richard von Busack

FRENCH DIRECTOR Jacques Demy made "popular operas," of which the newly restored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1963) is the best. This sung drama is a unique, soulful film. Perhaps the only comparison is to imagine the best MGM musicals without that pure vaudeville force, present even in the toniest of them, such as An American in Paris. This eagerness to please bowls over most fans but can leave some of us--admittedly a few--feeling sort of mugged. With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can enjoy the special rapture a musical provides without having your socks knocked off.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is set in the small, rainy French town at the end of the 1950s, at the time of France's futile war in Algeria. Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic, loves Genevieve Emery (Catherine Deneuve). She's the daughter of a single mother, the proprietor of a fashionable but ailing umbrella shop. Mme. Emery (Anne Vernon) nurses slight hopes for her beautiful daughter, hoping that she will marry a little farther up on the ladder than a mechanic, but she doesn't interfere. In any case, the couple is smashed up by the draft.

As ill luck has it, Guy impregnates Genevieve before he leaves for the war. The seasons pass; once overseas in Africa, Guy writes sporadic--and then sporadic and cryptic--notes that she cannot understand, with thoughts like "It's strange how the sun and death travel together."

In the meantime, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), the heartbroken lover from Demy's 1960 film, Lola (you don't need to have seen it first), comes to Cherbourg on business. Roland has a pencil-thin mustache, a bit of melodrama makeup that makes his eagerness to help the financially embarrassed Mme. Emery and her young daughter very suspicious. But Roland is what he seems: as wealthy as he is lovelorn, a good match for a girl without much prospects.

When Guy returns years later, he's alone in the town except for his Aunt Elise, an invalid (touchingly played by Mireille Perrey) who dies soon after Guy's arrival. As Elise's nurse, Madeleine (Ellen Farner), makes her farewells, Guy notices, at last, something that we've spotted earlier: a prettiness that compliments the goodness of her heart. The question then is whether he can, or should, leave the memory of Genevieve behind.

Watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg recalls that Laurie Anderson koan, "This is the time, and this is the record of the time." An international hit more than 30 years ago, the restored film is dyed in a dreamy early-'60s spectrum of bright colors that somehow harmonizes the scarlets and fuchsias, turquoises and lavenders. The satisfying pastel chicness of the look is accompanied by the haunting music of Michel Legrand, who came up with the lion's share of the evocative adult pop of the era. The two main themes--"I Will Wait for You" and "Once I Loved a Woman"--were much covered by everyone from Tony Bennett to Brazil '66.

The conceit of having the actors sing all the dialogue is almost as quickly forgotten as it is noticed. Demy made the lyrics matter-of-fact, without traditional lyricism. He even has a bit character sing that he hates the opera and prefers the movies. Hence the perhaps highfalutin but genuinely deserved term "popular opera."

Unlike most musicals, the story has enough substance to critique. It will make you think about the ending of your own first love, consider Demy's almost Colette-like subtlety in the depiction of the gentle pressures of Mme. Emery to get Genevieve to marry well and ponder the everyday sadness of how Guy stays in his class and Genevieve leaves hers.

DEMY WAS himself the son of a small-town auto mechanic. In the documentary The World of Jacques Demy, made by Demy's widow, Agnes Varda, an interviewee remembers his socialist parents' endorsement that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was the first great proletariat musical. And yet the name of Guy's ice-cream-colored dream of an Esso gas station, which we see in the final shot, is "Cherbourgoise."

Once again, the movies scrambles the dreams of the working class with the class right above them. In an interview during her visit to this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, Varda regretted that she didn't know then what she knows now about product placement: "We never told a soul at the oil companies. We could have made an enormous amount of money. It's been 30 years now that people have been crying over that gas station called 'Esso.' "

Varda, a noted director herself (Vagabond, One Sings, the Other Doesn't) is such a custodian of Demy's memory that in addition to The World of Jacques Demy, she also made a fictional version of Demy's early years, called Jacquot of Nantes. She remembers Legrand and Demy deliberately setting out to make an audience weep. "They were standing at the piano. Jacques was trying to make up some dialogue, Michel was trying to write some music. They said at the time, and Michel Legrand repeated it when I interviewed him: They wanted people to cry. They wanted a sob story."

Rarely has such calculation looked so effortless. The restored version of the original, available, when you could see it, in faded, short-lived Eastman color, captures Demy's original color scheme. Varda says the brilliant color "serves the violence and the cruelty of the story."

"The violence and cruelty"--The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's artifice, its carefully polished surface, doesn't distance the viewer. Instead, it focuses the emotional effects as if through a lens. There is nothing crueler than disillusionment, and this is the real point of the film.

In the face of 100 years of cinema's insistence that love never dies, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg makes the soft, almost sotto voce comment that, yes indeed, it does. Roland, finding a new love after the thorough spurning he received in Lola, finds his happiness--although he doesn't acknowledge the fact--at the expense of someone else. So, here's another cruel suggestion the film makes: we're all not just vessels of heartbreak but also conduits of it.

IN ADDITION to the marvelous music and the visuals, the film features a very young and fresh Catherine Deneuve, an actress so pure-looking that the very sight of her was enough to set both Roman Polanski and Luis Buñuel scheming for revenge, like villains in a potboiler. For a lone bit of heavy irony in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy includes a pleasant dockside whore who tries to give the grieving Guy some solace. To add to his misery, it turns out her name is Jenny, short for Genevieve.

Buñuel's casting of Deneuve in Belle de Jour a few years later might be the unsentimental Buñuel's way of suggesting that the waterfront whore Jenny and the umbrella-saleswoman's daughter Genevieve were one and the same. Belle de Jour and Polanski's Repulsion, however, were in Deneuve's future.

What you see here is the all-too-affecting 19-year-old evincing--wrenchingly--a young girl's terror that she's been forgotten, matched with her own terror that she's forgetting her lover herself. "Why is Guy fading away from me?" she sings.

Says Varda of these scenes, "You're afraid she'll do something against herself." She's right; you are. To see Deneuve in the freshness of her youth is to see something legendary. Deneuve is literally a monument, now; in fact, to celebrate an anniversary of the French Republic, Deneuve was chosen to model for Marianne, the female icon of France.

The essential Frenchiness of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is part of the film's devastating charm. Demy's masterpiece plays with all of the more pleasant preconceived notions of France--as a land of practicality, wit and politeness, full of skilled romancers of both sexes. François Truffaut, who liked the film, commented that it was sadder than his own movies and would be popular in New York among those who speak French--and even more among people who pretend they speak French.

Certainly, the real France has its own appeal, but The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a French-blue dream of France. The movie epitomizes--in the way John Ford's The Searchers epitomizes the American West--what France ought to look like. Dream France is the laboratory of the human emotions, where romantic love is dissected to find out what's underneath.

As a product of this analysis, it's not just delicacy but intelligence that makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg worth paying the tribute of tears. Through the years since its initial reception, the film has gained a mistaken reputation as harmless Gallic fluff. It's a confection, all right--a piece of divinity.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1963; unrated; 91 min.), directed and written by Jacques Demy, scored by Michel Legrand, photographed by Jean Rabier and starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo and Marc Michel.

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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