Friday, April 28, 2017

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1964) Criterion Collection

From cinematographer, Jean Rabier’s creamsicle-colored palette, to its ground-breaking (if not trend-setting) use of Michel Legrand’s pop-opera score (a haunting potpourri and outpouring of unfettered human emotion), director, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) continues to resonate, pulsate and throb with the gloss and gilt of a bittersweet, and highly personal memoir about the miscalculations of youth, the missteps made when lovers are parted by circumstance and fate, and ultimately, the tragedy of life-learned and careworn regrets that befalls us all with the inevitable passage of the years. It isn’t only that the lovers of this piece, the impossibly winsome, precocious and perpetually pouty (but in a good way) Catherine Deneuve, and even more unbearably drop-dead sexy as hell, Nino Castelnuovo are the epitome of a Barbie and sport n’ shave Ken doll match (it always helps a movie if its central cast are beautiful to look at), and, on this particular outing (even when dubbed) can act rings around most of their breed with practically a flick of an eyelash or slightly raised brow. No, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues to raise the bar extremely high for anyone attempting this sort of ‘rock opera’ (later to become Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bread n’ butter) because it lacks any deliberate beguilement, and, as such hypnotizes the audience almost by accident; an happy surprise for all, though I suspect, particularly producers, Mag Bodard, Gilbert de Goldschmidt and Pierre Lazareff who rather reluctantly agreed to finance the project. The film’s runaway international success would prove a total vindication of Demy’s faith in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Moreover, it has remained his masterpiece these many years since its theatrical release. 
Demy, whose ambition it was to make an ‘operetta’ that neither sounded or looked like all those traditional exemplars (these, he frankly found stilted and despised) eventually tapped composer, Michel Legrand for counsel, encouragement, advice and, of course, for his expertise in the field of composition. Legrand took one look at Demy’s rough draft screenplay and concurred, the idea had merit, though not without many pitfalls and challenges to be faced along the way. No one other than Legrand seemed to share this view; Demy, persistent to a fault as he continued to refine his concept and shop the property around to various distributors – all of whom turned him down. What likely worried the money men most then (as it continues to contribute to sweaty palms and closed doors now) was the notion that smack-dab in the middle of the French New Wave, virtually – and retrospectively, slavishly devoted to the intellectual deconstruction of humanity as perennially fragmented and disillusioned – was that Demy had dared to propose a lithe and lyrical ode to love, as deliberately, if deceptively structured into three distinct acts, the entire mobile tenuously dangling around the tried and true ‘boy meets girl’ scenario; the lovers in question neither teeming in angst or perpetually emerging from half-life, half dressed…quel dommage, and, shocking! As is often the case with ‘firsts’ (though ‘Umbrellas’ does, in fact, owe its core inspiration to all those operettas of yore), Demy’s pet project would come under considerable scrutiny in France, even as the movie has since evolved into one of the irrefutable cornerstones of the movement and the decade; its cross-cultural contamination actually shedding international light on the Cahier du Cinema; that witty troop of French auteurs ostensibly led by Francois Truffaut who, a decade earlier, vehemently rebelled against French cinema’s ‘tradition of quality’ , perceived as an aping of the American style inundating French movie houses after the Second World War.
Time has allowed for Demy’s passionate, colorful art to acquire its just deserts under the hallowed under Cahier’s ‘auteur theory’; a more recent exultation and reevaluation: alas, come much too late for Demy, who died of complications due to AIDS in 1990. In one of those ironies that never fail to appear moronically transparent in retrospect, Demy was to shoot The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Eastman stock; notorious for its rapid decomposition and fading. Hence, almost from the moment the movie ended its theatrical run, prints and the original camera negative began to fall into a state where the likelihood of any resurrection of the original color-rich clarity was thought to be futile to downright impossible. Mercifully, Demy had possessed the wherewithal to also create separation masters; records of the film in yellow, cyan and magenta on B&W negatives, similar to the preservation of 3-strip Technicolor; thus allowing for Demy’s widow, Agnès Varda, to spearhead a project in the mid-1990s to create new color-negatives, resulting in a fully restored print, reissued theatrically in 2004 and, from which Criterion’s 2013 Blu-ray release was created.
In casting The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy went almost entirely against the grain of conventional wisdom, picking great actors instead of great singers to assume roles requiring them to excel at their most woeful deficit, and relying almost exclusively on pros hidden behind the screen (professional dubbers, Danielle Licari and José Bartel assuming the operatic emoting for Deneuve and Castelnuevo respectively). Seamlessly, it works to convey in song what the movie’s stars transmit via their formidable assets in all other regards. And Deneuve and Castelnuevo are, in fact, ideally suited for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; her unassuming innocence perfectly at odds with his uber-naïve and very earthy masculine thirst to possess the only woman to whom the fates will bar; eventually to accept another (Ellen Farner, as the ever-devoted, Madeleine) as his real angel of mercy and penultimate destiny in life. Whether consciously or not, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg really owes a lot to Joshua Logan’s film version of Fanny (1961); another tale of star-crossed lovers separated by the ill-timed winds, reunited in close proximity by another cruel twist. The parallels between these two movies are, in fact, uncanny; both male leads favoring careers in automotive repair; both female leads becoming pregnant and concealing the illegitimacy of their unborn children by marrying another man out of convenience; each, having their course derailed by well-intentioned, though nevertheless misguided parental intervention.
In Fanny’s case, the lovers are brought back into focus by a death in their midst, allowing - presumably – for them to pick up where they left off. Quite the opposite for the lovers of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; umbrella sales girl, Geneviève Emery (Deneuve) and garage mechanic, Guy Foucher (Castelnuevo) given only the briefest of nostalgic dénouements:, she, reflecting with curious ambivalence/he in a sort of self-restrained wounded rage beneath his more glacially cool façade; the camera panning upward into a snow-filled night sky as her car drives away, ostensibly for the last time as their unsuspecting daughter, Françoise (Rosalie Varda) impatiently awaits in the front seat; Guy’s wife, Madeleine and their child,  François (Hervé Legrand) suggesting ‘better days ahead’. Even so, this bitter palette of mirror-cracked romance leaves a potent aftertaste of regrets behind in the viewer’s mind. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg conveys a deceptively simple – and, according the standards of a traditional musical – relatively conventional ‘boy meets girl’ scenario seen at least a thousand times before. And yet Demy brilliantly achieves the ‘new wave’s’ verve for panged existentialism almost by accident; acclimatizing the audience accepting the musical’s tried and true precepts, then critiquing and even deconstructing them for a deeper investment of their time. Here is a tale, not only of young love, but the aftermath rarely discussed on celluloid; that ‘other side’ of the hearts and flowers rarely, if ever questioned within a genre un-originally enthusiastic for its' ‘happily ever after’.   
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opens rather as expected on an overhead shot of passersby hurriedly maneuvering between the raindrops along the town’s drenched cobblestone streets. We settle on a busy garage whose owner, Aubin (Jean Champion) employs a small army of skilled mechanics to service his clientele. One of this crew, Guy Foucher is about to embark upon yet another clandestine rendezvous with his paramour, Geneviève Emery; a stunningly attractive seventeen year old seller of umbrella’s in her mother’s (Anne Vernon, vocals by Christiane Legrand) boutique. It’s a niche market at best - umbrella selling - and Madame Emery’s establishment is in constant threat of foreclosure, presently drowning in considerable debt. But why speak of money when one is hopelessly/haplessly floating on the euphoric ether of a ‘forever 21’ romance? Madame Emery thinks her daughter a silly little fool. It will come to no good; this secretive and severe case of puppy love. After all, Madame Emery is an old campaigner. She knows her sex and the heartache of falling for a man some years her senior. Guy, however, is a young man with a young man’s proclivities to satisfy urges. Is he sincere and looking for a wife or just a few hours casual diversion? Only time will tell. Meanwhile Guy’s Tante Élise (Mireille Perrey, vocals by Claire Leclerc), an invalid, cautions self-restraint. Her one desire is for Guy to be happy in life, only she fervently believes such bliss will come in the form of another; her patient caregiver, Madeleine quietly pining for just such an acknowledgement, even a bit of encouragement from Guy.
Guy and Geneviève skulk off to consummate their smoldering passion, becoming more meaningfully entrenched in their affair with each passing hour. In the meantime, Madame Emery befriends a young, travelling investor, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, vocals by Georges Blanes) whom she clearly sees as both Geneviève’s and her own salvation. Roland is no fool. Though he recognizes Geneviève’s beauty and her qualities as a young woman are irreproachable, he can also clearly see her heart belongs to another. Nevertheless, Roland is a patient man. Moreover, time and circumstances have decidedly aligned in his favor. Guy is conscripted into the French Army and sent off to Algeria; their tear-stained separation at the railway station leaving Geneviève fragile and wanting. For she has learned, and will presently inform her mother, she is carrying Guy’s baby. Guy knows nothing of the pregnancy; his increasingly sporadically written letters from the front seem to suggest that his interest in Geneviève has decidedly cooled. To save face, Geneviève agrees to entertain Roland. But her heart is not in these cordially orchestrated dinners. Moreover, she refuses to ‘trick’ Roland into a quickie marriage. Before her condition begins to show, Geneviève confesses the delicacy of her condition to Roland. Miraculously, he is not unnerved or even put off by the news and, even more to Madame Emery’s delight, Roland still desires Geneviève’s hand in marriage, promising to rear the unborn child has their own.
In a moment of quiet desperation, Geneviève agrees to this arrangement. She and Roland wed and move away from Cherbourg. Upon Guy’s return he discovers Madame Emery’s shop closed and learns that his one true love has married another. Bitterly, Guy suffers the post-war depression of a returning veteran. He loses his job at Aubin’s garage after becoming flippant with a client, and vows to live off his pension while quietly drinking himself into a stupor. Madeleine is patient but not about to sacrifice herself to a man who cannot even look after himself. Presently, Élise dies, leaving Madeleine without a purpose at the apartment. Guy pledges himself to Madeleine, vowing to reform his ways and never again look back. She accepts his promise at face value and invests herself in becoming the perfect mate for him, inspiring Guy to open his own garage. The couple has a child – François and, once again, a period of time passes uneventfully. However, as the Christmas holidays approach, Madeleine and François (now five) hurry to the toy store in search of gifts, leaving Guy to tend to his newly established garage. As fate would have it, Geneviève pulls into the station to get gas, immaculately coiffured and as surprised to discover Guy. Alas, time has cast a pall upon their memories and in unsuspecting ways; she, clearly still in love with him, confesses that the daughter waiting in the car is their child; he, refusing to be properly introduced, or even get a better look at Françoise, perhaps suspecting his emotions might get in the way. Instead, Guy’s heart is momentarily hardened. Reservedly, he bids Geneviève farewell, presumably for the last time. Madeleine and François return from their shopping. Guy embraces his wife and son with renewed happiness as the camera pulls back on the snowy scene in front of the station. Love – in a way – has triumphed, in spite of those rose-colored memories from another life turned asunder with the passage of the years.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a ‘lump-in-your-throat’ kind of movie. Demy’s libretto gets under the skin and, more earnestly still, burrows deep into our collective subconscious (Michel Legrand’s musical arcs marking crescendos to the crestfallen in the audience); Demy’s leitmotif of young love lost forever, acquiring a velvet-gloved, tear-stained patina, true-to-life that goes well beyond the cheap dime store sentiment of all those traditional boy-meets-girl movie musical tributes. Yes, we are faced with the same stereotypes here; the girl of modest means and the boy who would be king, if only in her heart; the nattering elders on both sides with their sage ‘wisdom’ about what fate has in store, should the fates allow, or perhaps, disavow; and finally, the transparently perfect suitor and his second best. Uncannily, especially for a musical, second best wins this tortoise and hare race; the perfect pair elementally Shakespearean in the general trajectory of their failed romance, and definitely in their wounded farewells. The simplistic narrative and one-dimensional characterizations are arguably ‘window dressing’ for Bernard Evein’s startlingly rich Production Design and Jacqueline Moreau’s sublime costuming (an extension of Evein’s eye for evoking genuine pools of emotion from the artifice of this prominently colorful environment. And, you would be hard-pressed to discover a more stunningly handsome set of love birds than Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo; she, with dyed blonde tresses, an astonishingly exuberant portrait of innocence lost; he, using those dark and flashing eyes to penetrating effect. In the end, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg survives as Jacques Demy’s masterpiece, not so much for any individual elements gone into its construction; rather, for the symbiosis of all these finely wrought components coming together in the most unusual and very satisfying ways. Mon amour, mon amour…these umbrellas are shiny and glistening with the tears of star-crossed lovers everywhere: a bittersweet valentine to all whom the gates of passion were once thrust wide open, then just as unceremoniously slammed shut before the white hot intensity was allowed its natural allotment of time to cool. Great stuff – and truly – faultlessly, memorable.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg gets its single disc Blu-ray release from Criterion nearly a full two years after the Jacques Demy box set. For those only interested in Demy’s work as far as this opus magnum goes, it has been well worth the wait. Culled from the same 2013 restoration, the 1.85:1 hi-def image is mostly stunning with some minor caveats. For starters, a few key sequences appear rather softly focused, or rather, slightly out of focus with a sudden and inexplicable loss of fine detail and homogenizing of film grain. Mercifully, these instances are few and far between and what bookends is a cornucopia of razor-sharp, eye-poppingly colorful and richly saturated images, surely to please. Colors are ‘wow’ spot on; flesh looking very natural; film grain, sparkling and indigenous to its source and contrast as true as it can be. You will not find much to complain about here. The original monaural sound mix gets a new DTS 5.1 presentation. It’s fairly subtle, or rather, subtly done; most of the vocals dead center with only minor reverb trilling from the side channels.  Extras are rewarding: beginning with the nearly hour long retrospective, Once Upon a Time …The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; a 2008 documentary featuring vintage footage of Demy with more recent reflections supplied by Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda, Michel Legrand, Catherine Deneuve and Marc Michel. It’s in French with English subs – naturally. We also get a half hour video essay from scholar, Rodney Hill; a little over ten minutes of a Cinépanorama Interview from 1964, another half hour’s reflections from Michel Legrand and an audio-only interview, again with Legrand from 1991. Deneuve contributes another ten minute audio-only interview, this one from 1983. Last, but not least, there is a six minute ‘restoration’ discussion piece and extensive liner notes from film historian, Jim Ridley. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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