Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I love musicals. I love French New Wave films. So, logically, I should love a musical French New Wave film. But the thing I love the most about musicals is the dancing - watching Fred Astaire's feet or Gene Kelly's torso moving across the screen. Sure, I also love the songs (when they are good) and the stories (when they aren't boring), but it's the dancing that makes great musicals great. And The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has no dance numbers. Not a one. Why? Why couldn't Jacques Demy be bothered with proper dance numbers? What is the point of making a musical without dance numbers? It might just as well have been made as a regular melodrama - you could just have the actors speaking their lines instead of singing them, and it would just be a regular movie. That is not a proper musical.

Also, the songs are pretty bland. They aren't bad, but if every single line of dialogue is going to be sung, I would have preferred it to be sung to some tunes that didn't sound like elevator music. I understand that the point of this is the fact that the singing is supposed to seem natural and organic, and to basically seem like real conversation. But I ask again - why? Either make it a proper musical, with actually good songs and dance numbers and so on, or make it a proper movie and have everyone just talking. I do not understand the point of this weird mixture.

And it doesn't really have that knowing wink of the best New Wave films either. I don't mean that every good French New Wave film is tongue-in-cheek. I mean the best films of the French New Wave say to the audience, "I know this is a film, and you know this is a film, so why don't I just stop pretending and acknowledge that this is a film, and that way we can all have a lot more fun - I will be able to do all sorts of crazy shit I wouldn't be able to do if we played a game of "let's pretend we aren't watching a movie."" And I suppose this film is sort of doing that with having the characters sing all their dialogue, but the fact that the singing is intentionally kind of bland, so that it plays basically like regular dialogue would, means that Demy is playing "let's pretend we aren't watching a movie," or at least trying to.

There are really good things about this movie, though. I love the look of the film - it's so candy coloured and gorgeous. The set decoration and cinematography go a long way towards mitigating all of the above mentioned flaws. It's just so pleasing to look at, that it's unfortunate that it is kind of boring to listen to.

I also do like the plot of the film - I like the fact that there aren't any real 'villains'. Every character is basically a good person, just trying to do the best they can, and circumstances or poor choices lead them astray. A good example of this is the character Roland Cassard, the rich man Genevieve marries despite the fact that she is really in love with Guy. If this were a more melodramatic movie, Roland could have been portrayed as some evil, canniving asshole who the audience is supposed to throw their popcorn at. But instead, he is a tender, gentle, loving man who accepts the fact that he will never be Genevieve's primary love. I like that.

I also like the fact that, though it is very sad that they don't end up together, it didn't utterly destroy their lives. They are both basically happy people, living basically happy lives. The loss of their one true love has not stopped them from living, or from loving other people. This is more believable, and hence more touching, than it would be if it all ended in some big suicide pact.

I said in the beginning of this review that, given my love of musicals and French New Wave films, it would make sense that I loved this film. Do I love it? I'm not really sure - I do like it, because its good elements are enough to make up for its mediocre elements, and it doesn't have anything actually bad about it - neither pleasantly boring songs nor a total lack of dancing are bad things, they are more about a lack of good things that should have been there. But it isn't a Great film, and I really don't think it should have won the Golden Palm at Cannes. It's entertaining and definitely worth watching, but it ain't all that.

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