Looking back at the musical starring Catherine Deneuve by director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, who passed away late last week.
A cast of vivid, pastel-colored lights envelop two lovers, they lean into each other’s embrace, locking lips; a lush orchestra backing swells to a crescendo. Once the kiss breaks, they sing out their love to each other, the music has turned into a hushed refrain. You’ve seen this movie before. Only, the words are not English, but French. And the singing does not end once the emotions have all been spilled, but instead continues into the banal—what drink to get?—and the disillusioned—will their love survive years apart? And now, you’re launched into a fury of jazz.
This is not some Hollywood musical in the 1940s or ’50s, but the work of French New Wave director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, who passed away late last week aged 86. The duo, who had just worked on the straight-shooting Lola, and would later go on to create another musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, had created the next great—not American—musical. This was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and, in true New Wave fashion, the formula for what a musical should be has been subverted, twisted, and taken 10 steps further. The Hollywood musical is taken to operatic heights, and singing not confined to mere moments of emotional rapture, but rather, expanded to every single line of dialogue. This is laid out plain from the first lines of the movie, as the lead male character, Guy (acted by Nino Castelnuovo), who works as an auto-mechanic, sings his business-as-usual rapport with a customer and his fellow coworkers, all while a big-band orchestra flits and flies around the dialogue. During an interview about Umbrellas, Demy was asked why he would have “people singing for no reason.” Did he see “people singing, ‘I’d like the apple pie’ in the restaurant?” The director responded, “Why not? It would make life more pleasant.”
This mold-breaking approach, as was typical of the New Wave, came right as the ’50s and its grand saccharine musicals were coming to an end, and the ’60s gearing up for a renewed wave of big box-office musicals—that would lead to Hello Dolly (1969) bombing five years later, and the major Hollywood shows along with it. Everything was larger than life. From the large scale sets, soaring visuals, and grandiose love that always ended with everything in its place. Umbrellas, on the other hand, had the veneer of the musical—choreographed dancing, puppy love between its two young stars, affected string music at emotional climaxes—but focuses on a very human and grounded tale. There is no running back into each other’s arms, no tearful and loving reunion after years apart—the boy coming back from war, or the realization that that your teenage love is true love after all and nothing can you keep it apart. Instead, their young romance turns out to be fallible, and not the final call at passion they will get—even with the teenage lead Geneviève (played by 20 year-old Catherine Deneuve) declaring, as they so often do in the movies, herself to death should their love disappear. But instead, they go on with their lives, to find what they thought they would never find again, in the arms of someone else. Even with a reunion six years later there is no inner turmoil, just unsteady greetings that end unceremoniously, each going back to their own lives and to the embrace of their lovers.
This dichotomy—Hollywood propping up lavish love, and the New Wave form of grounding it in reality—is reflected in Legrand’s score. There’s the emotional symphonic passages underscoring the affecting drama on screen, then a sudden frenzy of jazz, speaking to the energy that exists in the here and now, and the sparring found in our everyday dialogue. Legrand’s score would lead to two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Score, and Best Original Song for “I Will Wait for You,” the English version of Umbrellas’ main theme, although he won neither. The music of Umbrellas and its follow up The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) would become influential across all of America, with “I Will Wait for You” covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Cher, and Connie Francis—Francis’ cover would be featured in the surprisingly emotional Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark.” Director Damien Chazelle has repeatedly stated the effect that both films had on him and La La Land, which mirrors many themes and music phrases from Umbrellas and Rochefort (certain passages copy the French films directly.) But while La La Land procures a sheen of authenticity, and appears to explore the banal and sometimes unmoving reality of love, the magic and insight so present in Legrand and Demy’s tales of love, both lost and found, is left out. For Legrand knew of the subtleties of telling such tales, of knowing when to score along the formula, and when, precisely, to break away; to land with an impact that will endure and continue to outshine even the most lauded films to this day.