Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

1964 was an important year in the career of French filmmaker Jacques Demy. Having already made two feature films, Lola (1960) and Bay of Angels (1962), Demy made an international splash with his third feature film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Borrowing numerous elements from American musicals, Demy created a sumptuous musical that was, and still is, a treat for the eyes and the ears.

The film tells the story of the ill-fated love affair between a 20-year-old mechanic named Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo) and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve). Their romance begins in 1957 in the port town of Cherbourg. Against the orders of Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon), who runs the local umbrella shop, the two plan to marry. Time plays a cruel trick on the starry-eyed lovers and before they can elope, Guy is drafted to Algeria for two years. Guy and Geneviève promise to wait for one another and the two spend a passionate night together. Guy’s departure not only leaves Geneviève feeling alone, but she soon discovers she is pregnant. Upon discovering the unplanned pregnancy, Geneviève’s mother begs her daughter to marry a charming gem dealer, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), in order to avoid scandal, but Geneviève still has hope that Guy will return. After months of Guy’s absence, Geneviève begins losing hope and finds herself torn between marrying Roland, the man who loves her, and waiting for Guy, the man she loves. Ultimately, she makes a decision that will lead to a life of regret for happiness she could have had.

With The Umbrellas, Demy fashions a self-contained world, one that is marked by a unique quality: every piece of dialogue is sung. This song-filled world helps intensify the emotional moments of the film, making them much more raw and heartbreaking for the viewers. Suddenly, Guy’s departure is no longer a sad moment, but a tragic one. Geneviève’s fragile voice cries out for her lover as the train departs and the elegant score swells. Demy’s long-time collaborator, Michel Legrand, wrote the score that beautifully accompanies the poignancy and the heartbreak of Guy and Geneviève’s doomed relationship.

The true treat of The Umbrellas is Jean Rabier’s cinematography, which meticulously captures every color, fabric, and emotion that Demy sought to portray. The luscious cinematography not only creates a fantasy world, but it also hides the cruel reality that lurks beneath the surface. Vibrant colors and beautiful songs dominate the idyllic world, but when true emotions become too intense, the colors begin to fade and the songs become more depressing. The best example is the final encounter in 1963 between Guy and Geneviève, which is covered in a white blanket of snow. The lack of color allows the two to regret their decisions and reconcile with the fact that they will never be together. Demy skillfully deconstructs these moments, separating them from the fantasy world that he created. The characters are forced to reconcile with their emotions in a naked world while the spectators are forced to pull out their tissues and wipe away their tears.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg brilliantly showcases Demy’s love for fantasy worlds and film musicals, as well as his skill as a director. He pushes the limitations of filmic discourse, experimenting with elements that were never before seen in the genre. The result of his experimentation is a new cinematic world, one whose ordinary language is replaced by Jacques Demy’s brilliant lyrics and Michel Legrand’s tear-jerking score.

92/100 - Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a treat for both the eyes and ears, boasting songs, scores, and performances that will surely haunt the viewer long after the film is over.

Related Posts

Jose Gallegos

Staff Film Critic
I'm an aspiring filmmaker from Los Angeles. Recently, I graduated from USC with my Bachelors in Cinema/Television Production and French (yes, I'm a "phile" for all things "cine" and "franco"). I will continue my academic career by pursuing a Masters in Film Studies at UCLA (feel free to call me a traitor).
  • Adam Kuntavanish

    This is such a damn good movie, as are Demy’s other musicals like YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT and UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE. Elegant and buoyant but unafraid (especially this one) to hint at the sadder truths that most musicals shy away from.

  • Kat

    Awesome review. This is actually the only movie I’ve ever seen that I watched again as soon as in ended. And this was back during the VHS days! The main theme in this movie is unforgettable.

  • Christopher Misch

    As unforgettable as the score is from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I forgot it. Time to for a rewatch I guess! That was easy…