Monday, 21 September 2009


“Love is the poetry of the senses.” - Honoré de Balzac

We watched the 1964 Jacques Demy film “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) at the weekend. This was quite a famous and controversial film in its time and even today manages to generate quite few comments. The story is nothing special – trite one could even call it: Geneviève, aged 17 years, lives with her widowed mother, the owner of an umbrella shop in Cherbourg (hence the title of the movie). Geneviève and Guy, a twenty-year-old auto mechanic, are secretly in love and want to marry, but when she reveals this to her mother, her mother objects on the grounds that Geneviève is too young and Guy is not mature or well-established enough, particularly since he has not yet done his compulsory military service. Shortly after this, Guy is conscripted and he is to serve in the war in Algeria.

Before he leaves, Geneviève and Guy spend the night together, which results in her becoming pregnant. While Guy is away they drift apart, and Geneviève, strongly encouraged by her mother, accepts a marriage proposal from a well-to-do gem dealer named Roland Cassard, who has fallen in love with her at first sight and has promised to bring up her child as his own. Geneviève accepts and they get married. Guy returns and finds that his Geneviève, now married, has moved away from town. The rest you’ll have to see for yourselves…

A B-grade melodrama, you might say. Well, yes it is but there is quite difference from your ordinary melodrama. Firstly because it is precisely that, literally a melodrama in its original sense of “sung play”. The whole film is sung, all lines of dialogue uttered in recitative and occasional “aria”. A musical or modern opera, call it what you like, sung it all is. Even “Change the oil in car, Guy!” The film also is beautifully directed and the colours are quite stunning (this after all was the first French musical in colour).

Demy wrote the script and dialogues, as well as directing the film and it was Michel Legrand who imbued the film with its sultry sadness by writing the very atmospheric music for it. Everyone knows the song “I Will Wait for You…” which is melodramatic and romantic to the nth degree. Here it is in context, in the scenes where Guy and Geneviève part when he is conscripted.

The film still surprises and delights, shocks and moves one. The final scene at the Esso station is a legendary one in cinematic history. The acting is superb (and one wonders sometimes how the actors manage to keep a straight face while singing about changing engine oil) and Catherine Deneuve looks beautiful and innocent immersed in the joy and sorrow of first love.

Definitely have a look at this movie, and see what you make of it. It does grow on you and there is much to discover on second viewing.

For Movie Monday, also look at Dangerous Meredith's blog with some really good reviews on three or four movies!


  1. I really enjoy musicals, and I'd probably enjoy this film, though it sounds like one for the tissues!

  2. Oh, I loved this movie! I caught it on cable half-way through and it was very odd when they were all singing about changing the oil as you say Nic. But I kept watching and I did cry (a lot)...

  3. Although I had heard of this film I did not realise that it was a musical! I am blushing at my ignorance as I write this. I liked your information about melodrama being a sung play. My beloved kung fu movies are often very melodramatic and I think this is why so many westerners deride them as being mere trash. I think in Australia we are less comfortable with melodrama than other cultures. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is a melodrama that is sung, and kung fu movies are melodramas that are 'moved'. I guess when you are working with the emotional range and plot structure of a melodrama it can support (and probably even calls for) highly theatrical art forms such as music and movement and the bastardised chinese opera that is chopsocky movies.

  4. Yes, Meredith, melodrama seems to have acquired a pejorative sense nowadays, weven though it arose in classical Greece as a description of the plays that were very musical (eg. the sung pieces of the chorus).

    The 19th century play was perhaps the one that propounded the modern sense in that it encouraged the melodrama as a play that used musical cues within a fairly rigid structure, and the characterisations were then somewhat more one-dimensional: Heroes unambiguously good and their entrance heralded by heroic-sounding trumpets and martial music; villains unambiguously bad, and their entrance greeted with dark-sounding, ominous chords...

  5. Thanks for the info Nicholas. This actually squares with what I have found out for myself when I have done a little research on melodrama (a VERY little research I will admit). I think your point about the rigidity of structure leading to one dimensional characters is very well made - that certainly can happen. A million years ago I trained as a classical ballet dancer and in that art form it was certainly possible to see something similar. Ballet at its most mediocre can produce formulaic plots and shallow characters and I certainly used to encounter plenty of ballet dancers who thought the secret to interpreting their roles was to smile on count 8 in this scene and pout for 16 bars in that scene (and they only did this because generations of ballerinas had done the same already). However, what I also learnt from classical ballet is that if you are truly creative, and if you make an intelligent study of the structures and techniques you are working within, then you can colour and shape even a rigidly defined character or piece and bring something fresh, nuanced, and uniquely your own to the role or the work. This is why I am currently fascinated by the chopsockies – the better film makers, choreographers and physical performers in that genre do successfully manipulate their own tradition of melodrama to produce inspired work. I just love it when someone takes potentially schmaltzy or hokey material and transforms it into art.

  6. This is a gorgeous film and the colours are one of the lovely things about it. I didn't min them singing everything because there is some fantastic music there.
    I like melodramas if they are done as well as this one. And yes, I agree that the final scene is very poignant!