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Owen’s Oldies - ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’



By Owen Glancy

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

The French New Wave of the late 1950s through the early 1960s was undoubtedly one of the most exciting moments in film history, and one that produced more masterpieces than almost any other. 

Of all the legendary directors who emerged from this period, Jacques Demy is perhaps the most unique. His style is as whimsical as it is dark, and even during a moment in film history that saw the emergence of some of the medium’s greatest masters, Demy stands alone in his interesting brand of filmmaking. 

No other movie speaks more to this than “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” 

Released in 1964, “Umbrellas” follows the story of Geneviève and Guy, two lovestruck youths living out their perfect romance in 1957 Cherbourg, France. However, a combination of her mother’s disapproval and Guy’s drafting into the war effort against Algeria cause the two to spend one final night together, which ends in Geneviève’s pregnancy. 

With her lover gone, and her mother’s shop going out of business, their situation becomes desperate. This is when wealthy diamond merchant Roland Cassard enters the equation and asks for Geneviève’s hand in marriage. She now must decide between love and responsibility at the age of only 18. 

This conflict is such a large part of what makes the film great, with every scene toeing the line between innocent whimsy and harsh reality. It will make you believe in love again, and then immediately dash that belief against the cold rocks of reason. 

The part of the film that stands out the most is that it’s a musical, and a rather unique one at that. Rather than musical numbers, every character instead sings their lines throughout the film’s entire runtime.

I will admit, this did put me off a bit at the start of the movie, but once I got used to it, I started to really like it. By the film's end, you’ll think that this musical style was the only way to tell this story. 

Another one of the film’s biggest strengths is its use of color. This was Demy’s first color film, and if I didn’t know this going into it, I would’ve assumed he always worked in color. The way he uses color is so masterful and vibrant that I was occasionally distracted by how pretty everything looked. It got to the point where there were certain scenes I had to watch twice because I was so drawn into the set design and the lighting. 

While that may have been an embarrassing thing to admit, it’s just proof that Demy and the entire cast and crew of this film were on their A-game making this. 

All that said, I have to ask myself, why isn’t this more popular? I’ve asked just about everyone I know if they’ve heard of this film, and not a single person has said they have. Even some film buffs remain ignorant to this film, as other movies from the French New Wave such as “Breathless,” “The 400 Blows,” and “Le Beau Serge” still receive heaps of praise and notoriety to this day. I think the answer to this question lies in what makes this such a unique film. 

Demy managed to craft one of the most stylized, colorful, memorable, and unique films not just of the 1960s but of all time.

Because it’s so different from nearly every other film, except for maybe Demy’s later work “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” it can often alienate casual moviegoing audiences. That, alongside the baffling modern stigma surrounding subtitles, is what often leads newer audiences not to watch films like this. And that’s a real shame.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the perfect film for Valentine’s Day, and a highly recommended watch for anyone unafraid of going outside their comfort zone. Jumping into not just this film, but the entirety of Demy’s filmography is not only rewarding, but extremely fun! 

The easiest way to watch “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is on Max, The Criterion Channel, or to buy/rent it on Amazon Prime.



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