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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 30, 2014

It’s been over a decade since I last saw this movie, my initiation to the work of Jacques Demy.  At the time, I was pretty dismissive of it, calling it “a lame story with a quirky gimmick”.  I had hopes this revisit would make the movie click with me.  After all,  I’m supposed to adore it.  It’s by far Demy’s most beloved and famous film.  It ranks #164 on TSPDT’s comprehensive list of the greatest films (Demy’s highest placement on that list).  It won the Palme d’Or.  It has the highest rating on IMDb.  I skimmed a couple of dozen other reviews, and they were all positive… in fact, all but one were gushingly positive.  Surely with ten additional years of intense movie-watching — including a great appreciation of many other Demy films — under my belt, the charms of this movie would reveal themselves to me.

Alas, no.  The caveat I feel inclined to give for this review is: “for me”.  I cannot deny the love that others feel for it, I can only say it does not work for me.  And it’s largely because the central conceit of the film doesn’t work for me.  I understand that it is an unconventional musical, and should not be viewed in the same way you’d view Singin’ in the Rain.  There is no dance, no big production numbers.  Although the main theme is memorable, most of the tunes are shapeless ditties… lovely, but shapeless.  And that’s just the music… the “lyrics” themselves are simply sung dialogue.  Any rhyme is purely coincidental.  There are no refrains, no bridges, no structure.  Almost every line sounds like it’s dangling at the end, waiting in vain for the phrase to be resolved.

Many of the reviews I glanced at said that after a little while, you don’t even notice they’re singing.  How I wish that were true for me.  I found it endlessly distracting.  While I appreciate the juxtaposition of the lilting music against the bittersweet story, the singing was like a fly I couldn’t shake off.  I couldn’t find it charming or moving because I always felt this chasm between myself and the characters.  What can you do when the very thing that makes the movie unique is something that annoys you?

I do love the vibrant visuals.  Such a candyland world of eye-popping colors… and a nice little touch when Geneviève and Guy “walk” down the street on a dolly track.  It is undeniably a gorgeous film.  And I must retract the term “lame story”… there is something insightful to its look at romance as an often ephemeral thing, not an idealized fantasy, but a force that has needs or it will wither and fade.  There is a beautiful, tragic melancholy to the line: “I would have died for him… why am I not dead?”  And it’s a minor thing, but the intervening years since my last viewing have enabled me to understand and appreciate the reference to Lola (which, as of this writing, is currently my favorite by Demy).

Movies are not universal experiences, but I always feel a little guilty — and a little dense — when a much-heralded “classic” leaves me cold (perhaps in this case, “lukewarm” fits better).  In the end, I’m the one who’s missing out.  But for me, this film doesn’t work.  It is an admirable experiment (with points for a high degree of difficulty) and I would say that thematically, it’s more successful than I initially gave it credit for.  I just don’t enjoy watching it very much.  Rating: Fair (66)


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