Friday, October 14, 2011

Singing through the rain

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) 1964 France (91 min.) written and directed by Jacques Demy, with music by Michel Legrand.
            This could be the kookiest movie idea imaginable: a candy-colored, French-made, 1950s-style young romance musical with the entire dialog sung from start to finish.
But both the film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring a stunning 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve, and it’s Oscar-nominated theme written by Michel Legrand, which became in English the popular song ‘I Will Wait for You,’ were international hits and remain classics.
The movie’s bright crayon and pastel colors are pretty to look at, from the opening credits’ ‘God shot’ straight down from on high on a wet cobbled pavement as passersby with umbrellas cross the screen, to the Esso service station in Christmas snow at the movie’s end. The shots are nicely framed and sequenced, and convey the arch and self-conscious quality of Frenchness that winks discreetly from a Jean-Jacques Sempé cartoon, confident without taking itself too seriously.
The story is simple. Geneviève Emery (Deneuve), a seventeen-year-old who lives with her anxious widowed mother (Anne Vernon), and twenty-year-old auto mechanic Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo) who lives with his ailing godmother Tante Élise (Mireille Perrey), are in love and want to marry.
However, Madame Emery, who owns an upscale umbrella shop in Cherbourgwith bourgeoise pretentions and adult disappointments to matchdoes not want her daughter getting mixed up with a poor grease monkey—less so a mere auto mechanic who has yet to do his military service while France is fighting a war in Algeria.
Meanwhile, Guy’s Tante Élise has a live-in nurse, Madeleine (Ellen Farmer), a lovely young woman not Catherine Deneuve, who has eyes for the darkly handsome young man. The fair Madeleine is encouraged by Tante Élise, though lovestruck Guy seems barely to notice her.
Guy is called up for service. Guy and Geneviève have sex for the first and only time on a date the evening before he leaves to report for duty, ultimately in Algeria. When Guy and Geneviève meet the next day at the train station before he leaves, they sing a short duet in the café that bears the kernel of what later would become ‘I Will Wait for You’.
Americans will recognize Norman Gimbel’s after-the-fact English rendering of the movie’s theme music, which begins: ‘If it takes forever I will wait for you/For a thousand summers I will wait for you/Till you're back beside me, till I'm holding you/Till I hear you sigh here in my arms…’
‘Mon amour,’ Guy sings to the theme, walking down the railway platform with Geneviève to board the train.
‘Je t’aime,’ Geneviève replies.
‘Mon amour.’
‘Je t’aime, je t’aime.’
‘Mon amour,’ Guys sings from the train.
‘Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime,’ Geneviève cries as the train pulls out and the theme music swells.
Talk about making a rock cry. And this is only the first of three parts (Le départ).
In part two, ‘L’absence,’ Guy is in Algeria. Geneviève turns out to be pregnant with Guy’s child, but Madame Emery woos a well-heeled suitor for her, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), for whom this is only a detail.
Roland’s musical theme later became Norman Gimbel’s well known bossa nova-inflected hit song ‘Watch What Happens’, which begins: ‘Let someone start believing in you/Let him hold out his hand/Let him touch you and watch what happens…’
Watch indeed: Geneviève and Guy begin to lose touch during Guy’s two-year absence, by way of Madame Emery’s devout desire if not her direct agency. Madame sells the umbrella shop. Geneviève marries the wooing Roland. They all leave Cherbourg.
In part three, ‘Le retour,’ Guy, recovered from a combat injury and demobilized, returns home to Cherbourg. He hears from Élise that Geneviève has married (Madeleine saw Geneviève and Roland leave the church on their wedding day) and begins to get on with his life without Geneviève.
The brief, bittersweet moment when Guy and Geneviève cross paths four years later by chance at the Esso service station Guy owns and operates with his wife Madeleine is underscored when the romantic musical theme is played to a banal back-and-forth sung by the two former lovers who now have little to say to each other. 
In the end, the singing that at first may disconcert a viewer actually helps make the story charming and romantic. It is a fun show to watch, which tells a good story with catchy music, and the cast is appealing all around without being the least ‘cute’.
Incidentally, it is not Catherine Deneuve doing the extraordinary singing. All the actors’ voices were dubbed for the songs in the movie: Danielle Licari sings the part of Geneviève, José Bartel is Guy, Christiane Legrand is Madame, George Blaness is Roland, Claudine Meunier is Madeleine and Claire Leclerc is Tante Élise.
Theatrical trailer:

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