Cherbourg is known as the rainiest town in France, while Jacques Demy’s all-singing Cherbourg is lickable Eastmancolor whipped into a lemon-and-strawberry trifle, Candy Land on Ecstasy. But that’s just what the tourists can see—if you live here, head and heart never stray far from the kitchen sink. Debts pile up, a boy goes to war after his girl falls pregnant. Everyone falls in love and then has to settle for somebody else. It rains until it’s cold enough to snow.
“People only die of love in movies,” a mother tells her lovesick child in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), at Film Forum in a new 35mm print in time for Valentine’s Day. She doesn’t specify which movies, though excitable viewers might fear the category includes star-crossed romances that kick off with a date to see Carmen. Teenage Geneviève (dewfrost Catherine Deneuve) flirts and spoons with her beau, a mechanic named Guy (puppy-eyed Nino Castelnuovo, himself a former mechanic), in the same pleasant recitative trill she uses to spar with her widowed, meddlesome mom (Anne Vernon). Before Guy ships off for two years of military service in Algeria—for this is France in 1957, when the sun had set on the MGM song-and-dance juggernaut and was about to rise on the nouvelle vague—the shattered couple warble the ubiquitous love theme “I Will Wait for You,” but there are no production numbers per se. Unless, of course, the whole movie is one big production number, a choreography of the everyday timed to Demy’s floating long takes and Michel Legrand’s at turns jaunty and lachrymose score. (The director went the full Metro with his next film, recruiting the still-spry Gene Kelly for The Young Girls of Rochefort.)
All is melody: Geneviève’s vibrant glad rags sing the same warm hues as the garish paint covering Mother’s failing umbrella shop. Indeed, for the role that made the 20-year-old a star, Demy cast Deneuve as a literal wallflower: dissolving prettily into a lilac backdrop in her lilac dress, brooding in a maternity frock that matches the blossoms papering her bedroom. Once Guy disappears for all of the movie’s middle segment, bewildered Geneviève closes her parapluie and prefers to retract into the cloudless indoors. The dizzying color wheel of Bernard Evein’s famed production design only thinly veils a pervasive mood of compromised passion and housebound wistfulness, while a bittersweet air wafts in from other cities of the Demy monde: Geneviève’s patient new suitor reminisces about his unrequited ardor for Lola, the eponymous heroine of Demy’s debut feature.
“Looking at the photo, I even forget his face,” Geneviève says of Guy in a moment of Proustian bemusement. “When I think of him, it’s the photo I see.” Through Demy’s eyes, sadness, by virtue of intensity, spins into its own strange expressionist rapture—just as addiction and desperation do in Demy’s Bay of Angels. The wonderful-terrible dervish of Umbrellas reaches peak abandon, worthy of Vincente Minnelli, when Geneviève sobs out a plaint for Guy as a carnival whirls outside the shop. As joyous celebrants and countless streamers smear by her window in all directions, they seem not to mock her sorrow but complement it, on Demy’s all-embracing terms: pure exuberance of emotion.