“Riding the New Wave” revisits the seminal films of the French New Wave movement in cinema that helped to redefine the art form in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series aims not to question the films’ places on cinema’s highest pedestals, but rather to view them with an eye for the modern audience to determine if they could still entertain today.
My film for this week brings to the forefront of this series the love story at the center of this always-romanticized cinematic movement. Last week’s installment, a reappraisal of Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” was my inaugural splash into the southern tides of the New Wave’s “Left Bank” group, a sect of downtown Parisian filmmakers distinct from the five original “Cahiers.” Agnes Varda, the de-facto face of the “Left Bank,” fell in love and married another upstart filmmaker in the heat of the movement in 1962. Her husband, Jacques Demy, announced himself onto the international stage with the musical I watched this week, the invitingly melancholy film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
“Umbrellas,” while unequivocally musical, isn’t a musical in the way I’m used to recognizing. It isn’t a two-and-a-half-hour parade of carefully scored dance numbers that combine themes and fugues and characters and moods as they move across the screen. “Umbrellas” tells a relatively tame domestic drama — one of love, conscription, hidden pregnancies, and a second man — using music more to signify the mood than an excuse to break into tap on the cobblestone streets. The characters are always singing, probably every line in the film is sang to the tune of a melody, but the film isn’t organized into many separate songs, the music blending from scene to scene without ever stopping or taking a noticeable change of pace. I didn’t mind the lack of big musical numbers. While it made some of the film sonically indistinguishable (if I was handed a playlist of the “Umbrellas” soundtrack, I wouldn’t be able to place scene to song), the music does well to supply whatever the scene calls for, be that a passive, drifting waltz or a thunder-clap of intensity. And though the individual scenes don’t have very easily placeable tunes themselves, “Umbrellas’” main theme (a song called “I Will Wait For You” as far as the internet can tell) is worth a listen even on its own, the song built into each of the musical’s biggest scenes, and for good reason.
Demy’s drawn-out, methodical photography contrasts the stuttering, experimenting of his contemporaries. He doesn’t seem as bothered leaning on genre standards, drawing heavily from the big Hollywood musical formula the era laid out for him. Technically, “Umbrellas” comes off without a hitch, Demy’s rainbow-of-a-color-palette melting off his histrionic subjects like the wax from a firework-wicked Yankee spring-series. “Umbrellas” has character enough for two films, that character being the saturation slider slid all the way to the right.
As far as contemporary appeal, Damien Chazelle, the director behind the 2016 musical “La La Land,” has referenced Demy as one of his greatest cinematic inspirations since the start of his career, Chazelle’s first musical “Guy Madeline on a Park Bench” which is even led by a couple of characters sharing names with a couple in “Umbrellas.” A lot of “Umbrellas” shows up in “La La Land,” Chazelle’s season title-cards and final iris-out, as well as the pacing of shots in his epilogue all having analogous moments in Demy’s film. And in a world where “The Greatest Showman” stays in theaters for what felt like six-months, I think it’s possible an “Umbrellas” with just a touch of modernizing could do very well today. The one very integral thing that stands in the way of that would be “Umbrellas’” structure. I think much of the musical going public today likes them as much for the theater experience as for the Spotify/Apple Music ride on the way home, where they get to turn their viewing into a sing-along. “Umbrellas’” doesn’t have that same type of numbered set-list that allows for that level of extended audience participation, which would hamper it’s rise to popularity if made again today.
“Absence is a funny thing. I feel like Guy left years ago. I look at this photo, and I forget what he really looks like. When I think of him, it's this photo that I see.”
Geneviève Emery, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”
Jacques Demy, 1964