The Umbrellas of Cherbourg 1964
A Jacques Demy Film
I saw this film yesterday. It is a wonderful film on so many different levels. So many things to which my mind and spirit were able to respond. It’s ground-breaking and touching and well-produced, in all departments. There’s an overall conception that is so coherent and inter-related that it boggles my mind that something so bold can be done so well when it has no precedent – not of any film I know – to this extent. It’s not opera. It’s not a musical. And yet it combines the emotion of opera, the melodies of a great musical and the restraint of a film with good drama, meeting somewhere in between.
It is one of the most poignant films I’ve seen. It first made my heart ache, then made me cry, then tore my heart into pieces and then once the floodgates were open a lake of water poured over the wall until I ran out of tears.
It’s not a devastating tale. It’s very slim in what the story tells. Two people in love, circumstances change, they marry two other people, it’s not what they’d originally planned and foreseen as their feature but they’re content, then a coda, and the film ends.
But, this film is so much more than its parts. The marriage of those parts is what so emotionally engaged me. The parts combine to make something that is unique. The whole is somehow miraculously greater than the individual parts, as expertly done as they are.
There are six things which struck me immediately as aspects of filmmaking which are so hard to do, let alone do well, especially in a musical:
Capture dialogue – sung dialogue which synchronizes with the actor’s lips. It can’t be real, location, dialogue/singing. It’s either dubbed or mimed. It could be either but I suspect that everything was pre-recorded and the actors sang along to their own voices. I’m sure a book will tell me if I’m right or wrong about that. But for it to match so well, so often, I think they sang to a pre-recorded version, or a click-track.
Create a production design, with art decoration and costume designs which is uniform or matches a lot of prime colours in the same frame, as well as lots of pastels. It is brightly coloured and always beautiful.
Film on what looks like (some) real locations and integrate it with footage shot (presumably) on a film set (or soundstage).
Match the mood, instrumentation and intent of music or just sound to the mood of the scenes without overdoing it and allowing for the fact that music can be a sixth-dimension of filmmaking, depending on the style of film:
where it is never heard (The Birds) or
where it is front and centre of everything that happens (Star Wars, Star Trek, comic book movies, suspense, thrillers and horror).
Sometimes it can be used subtly to illustrate a third-dimension beyond words and images, to describe something not illustrated already in words and images (The Year of Living Dangerously). It can play against the obvious first and second dimensions to deliver a subtle description of something more elusive (To Kill a Mockingbird and any number of Jerry Goldsmith scores). Musicals aren’t required to have subtlety because they’re musicals. The words and the music are (to hijack a phrase) worn on the sleeves of the film or stage production. But here there is a combination of musical orchestration and film-scoring, all going on in the same piece of music. It’s wonderful.
Feature excellent performances which are not aimed at the back row of the theatre: naturalistic.
Use the camera to move in and out of the close-ups without drawing attention to itself. With the abundance of editing that goes into creating any scene in any film, the use of the camera in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is exceptional. There’s an effortless creation of wide-shots, two-shots, three-shots and close-ups, without editing, just through expert camera operation. It is a special kind of art, a specific skill. In this instance, it’s brilliantly done.