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THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner
Director: Jacques Demy
Audio: Dolby Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: letterbox, 1.66:1, non-anamorphic
Studio: Fox-Lorber
Features: Production notes, biographies, trailer
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 1997
 
"Mais mon amour, ne me quittez pas!" - Catherine Deneuve
 
Film ****
 
When we think about the French New Wave, usually the names Godard or Truffaut spring to mind.  Not too many people would remember Jacques Demy.  Furthermore, when we remember directors of great musicals, we think about a Vincent Minnelli or a Robert Wise.  More than a few eyebrows would raise if we mentioned a French New Wave director.  And yet, over the span of a decade, Jacques Demy, very much a member of the French New Wave, created musicals which compare favorably with the best that Hollywood had to offer during its golden age of musicals.  Demy made three musicals, starting with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), then Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), and finally Peau D'ane (1970).  Of the three, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (a.k.a. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is the most widely known and arguably the greatest.  The film became an international fairytale sensation upon its initial release, winning the Grand Prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and earning five Academy Award nominations.  It was celebrated for its striking use of colors as well as its haunting and unforgettable melodies.  The film also propelled its young female lead, Catherine Deneuve, to international stardom, and she would later appear in Demy's other musicals as well.
 
But with the passage of time, the film vanished from the public's eye.  By the 1970's, the world was no longer receptive to fanciful musicals.  The genre, save for a few sporadic entries over the years, disappeared.  To add insult to injury, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg's vibrant colors were apparently gone forever.  The film had been photographed using Eastmancolor film stock, which had a terrible reputation for fading badly, and the original negative was now damaged beyond repair.  The film's remaining prints, after years of neglect, were also so faded that the film was considered beyond any hope of restoration.  Thus, the film was "lost," its once-brilliant luster surviving only in memory.
 
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this tale.  Demy had foreseen his film's inevitable deterioration.  He had archived alternate monochromatic negatives using a sturdier film stock; these, when combined, could recreate the film's original colors (much as in the Technicolor three-color process).  After Demy's death in 1990, his widow, Agnes Varda (herself a New Wave director), spear-headed an effort to restore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to its former luminescence using the alternate negatives.  Finally, a restored version of the film was completed and re-released internationally in 1996 to overwhelming critical praise.  Once again, generations of film-goers could now experience one of the world's loveliest musicals as it was intended to be seen.
 
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is different from most other musicals in that the entire film is sung - dialogue, songs, and all.  While this is a common practice in operas (where the dialogue is sung via recitatives), it is quite rare in movie musicals.  The strategy works well in this film, partially due to Demy's skillful direction and partially due to the vast charm of the main characters, Genevieve (Deneuve) and Guy (Castelnuovo). 
 
As with most musicals, this film is a love story, but it is decidedly more mature than many of its Hollywood musical counterparts.  The themes of love versus duty are handled realistically in this film, and not always to the happiness of the characters.  Yet it is this very quality that brings so much emotional resonance to the story and is one of the reasons why the film was so celebrated in its day and so very much a part of the French New Wave. 
 
The film is divided into three chapters.  In the first chapter, Genevieve works with her mother in an umbrella shop in Cherbourg; the shop is in some financial difficulties.  When mother and daughter go to a jewelry shop one day to pawn a necklace, they meet a young and wealthy man who offers to buy the jewels.  The mother takes a liking to the man, fancying him as an ideal suitor for her daughter.  However, Genevieve loves another man, a young but poor auto mechanic named Guy, of whom her mother disapproves.  Guy has another young lady in his life -  Madeleine, a pretty girl who takes care of his ill aunt yet who secretly adores him.  One day, Guy learns that he has been drafted by the French army and must depart the next day.  The two young lovers, Genevieve and Guy, spend one last sorrowful evening together.  The next morning, they part company at the train depot.  We see Guy board his train, watching Genevieve as she waves farewell, growing ever smaller as the train pulls away.  It is a simple yet incredibly poignant scene, bringing the first chapter to its conclusion.  It is also the most powerful moment in the entire film, and in terms of emotional impact, it is the equal of the conclusion of Chaplin's City Lights or Hitchcock's Vertigo.
 
In the second chapter, we learn that Genevieve is now pregnant.  To complicate matters, the wealthy suitor has returned from his trip abroad and begins to woo Genevieve's hand.  The wealthy suitor is genuinely affectionate, however Genevieve has promised herself to Guy.  She is confused and anguished, torn between her sense of duty to her mother and unborn child and to her only true love.  The second chapter concludes with her decision.  In the final chapter, Guy has returned from the army.  There will be a re-encounter with Genevieve and Madeleine; we see briefly the paths their lives take before the film ends on a pensive note.  To some degree, the characters have achieved their desires yet there is a simultaneous sense of unfulfillment.  This unusual note of great happiness and silent despair brings a remarkable close to a remarkable film.
 
Video ***
 
Fox-Lorber has a reputation for making some very crummy DVDs of excellent films.  Their DVD butchering of the Kurosawa masterpiece, Ran, is a perfect example.  Happily, the video presentation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is far superior to Ran's.  There are still some minor problems, such as occasional compression artifacts that occur during some black fade-outs between scenes, especially at the chapter intertitles.  A few scratches or dust specks appear here and there but hardly enough to be noticed.  The title sequence is oddly cropped off on either side so that some letters are not visible.  Fortunately, the main body of the film is unmarred and these minor problems do not affect the viewing otherwise.  The film looks amazing for its age.  The colors are beautiful to behold in this 1.66:1 letterboxed edition, and the image remains clear and vivid with no bleeding of colors.  Indeed, it is improbable that the film will ever look better it does here, and for a change, Fox-Lorber has done a solid job with the video transfer.
 
Audio ** 1/2
 
A new Dolby 2.0 stereo mix of the original soundtrack has been created by the original composer, Michel Legrand, for this release.  The music has a rich and glowing quality that does justice to this wonderful soundtrack.  This new audio track is clean but not aggressive, so don't expect much of a work-out for your speakers.  Nonetheless, it was a true pleasure to hear these beautiful songs in their original context.
 
On an interesting side note, many of the singing voices were dubbed by actors other than the stars, a common practice in those days.
 
Features * 1/2
 
Other than the usual standards (production notes, bios, and a trailer), there are no other extras.  There is no featurette about the restoration process, just one-and-a-half brief pages on the subject.  That's a shame.  Also, while English subtitles are available, it might have been nice if Fox-Lorber had also included French subtitles for those of us who might wish to sing along with the songs.  But these are minor quibbles.  My major quibble is the seriously insufficient number of chapter stops.  This will not matter to the viewer who wants to watch from start to finish, but for the viewer who wants to go straight to a favorite song, it can be a big hassle.  Most of the chapter stops don't come anywhere near any of the songs.  There is even a gap of 20 minutes between stops at one point.  Would it have been so difficult for Fox-Lorber to add in a few more chapter stops?  They did not.  Oh well.
 
Summary:
 
This is simply one of the greatest musicals ever made, and its beautiful restoration will bring tears of joy to the eyes of musical fans everywhere.  A nearly lost classic of the musical genre, this is one film that can now be cherished once more for many generations to come.