The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine DeneuveJacques Demy’s classic film from 1964 launched Catherine Deneuve into that heady stratosphere of aesthetic canonisation that the French do so well. In many ways, Deneuve’s career and name have eclipsed Demy’s, but watching his films reminds you of how bright his penumbra can be.

The Nouvelle Vague pin-ups Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut made their mark with black and white immediacy — you could sense the urge towards youthful street smarts in the bustling cinematography and locations of A Bout de Souffle and Jules et Jim. Demy is similarly reconfiguring the language of cinema but pulls it in the opposite chromatic direction. If you left a four year old alone with a bunch of Crayolas, they’d get pretty darn close to the colour palette in this film. Initially, Demy makes the rainy Cherbourg look like the Fauvists took over Jodphur and added some cobblestones. As the film’s storyline progresses, the palette smooths itself into creams and whites – it is an Expressionistic stylisation that belies the social realism of the plot and yet matches it incomparably well.

Demy’s cinematographer, Jean Rabier, had earned his stripes on Les Quatre Cents Coups with Truffaut, Les Amants with Louis Malle and Cléo de 5 à 7 with Agnès Varda. This was to be Demy’s first colour film and Rabier clearly pulled all the stops out. The lighting is unusually high-key, which makes the surrounding surfaces as luminous as the actors, and by playing with the balance of daylight and tungsten sources, Rabier heightens the contrast of candy-like interiors and blue exteriors.

Working alongside the cinematography in heightening the stylisation of it all is the amazing music by Michel Legrand. The film is less a movie than it is an operetta — the entire script is sung. Indeed, the score and voices were pre-recorded and the filming took place with actors miming to playback. Demy is paying homage to the musicals of the Hollywood studios, the melodramas of the French theatre and the opera of all Europe in one fell swoop. The effect is magical, unsentimental and triumphantly enjoyable.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Available now throughAztec International
Also available is Demy’s 1967 follow-up The Young Girls of Rochefort.