Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

The Young Girls of Rochefort is the Demy I’m most hungry for, but it’s difficult to believe it’s much better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the sublime and experimental French musical about a doomed love between two people. Instead of formulaic alternations between stagy song-and-dance numbers and expository dialogue scenes, Cherbourg blends music with all of the little rituals of life; every word is sung and Michel Legrand’s score never lets up. The opening shot is one of the most soothing opening credits sequences I have yet seen, an almost Tati-esque feat of geometric framing that tilts down from a gorgeous long shot of the city of Cherbourg beyond the harbor to a perfect bird’s eye composition that renders all of the passersby as the tops of umbrellas gliding forward in straight lines or diagonals, crisscrossing each other’s paths or forming processions. This colorful, abstract, painterly shot sets the tone for the over-saturated colors and vivacious Parisian streets. In the same way that this extravagance of mise-en-scéne clashes with the more impressionistic impulse Demy has for gently capturing rain on cobblestone and overcast days, so does the exuberance of the music clash with the profoundly ordinary story the film tells, one rooted in the oft-tragic rhythms of lower middle class life during France’s conflict with Algeria as opposed to something more polished and contrived.

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