Jaque Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the music of Michel Legrand that fills every second of it is probably more influential in the careers of director Damien Chazelle and jazz composer Jutstin Hurwitz (who worked together on La La Land, which just became the most nominated film in Oscar history this week, tied with 1959’s Ben-Hur and 1997’s Titanic) than any other film. Every word of dialogue is sung, but this should not put off people who don’t normally like musicals, just as La La Land is appealing especially well to the same type of people. It begins with hilarious self-parody that eases viewers into what could otherwise be a shock of telling a story through wall-to-wall singing. The opening scene is set in a mechanic’s garage and one of the mechanics sings about how he hates going to the opera because all the singing gives him a pain, saying that he likes movies better.
Umbrellas‘ singing is so gently placed in the film that it doesn’t take long before it feels natural and we don’t have to worry about getting a pain from all the singing like the character who doesn’t like opera. The story is about the power that promises made and broken can have to effect the future. Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and after seeing a few short glimpses into their romance and their family backgrounds, they sing the film’s most famous song, “I Will Wait for You.” Guy just told Genevieve the news that he’s being sent to the war in Algeria without any knowledge of when he will be back home to Cherbourg. The song includes their promise to wait for each other until he returns, whenever that may be.
Many moments in Umbrellas are familiar of most Hollywood romances, despite being made in France. But the familiarity is always met with originality in how the story is told so that there is never a cliched moment but every second sparks with intelligence, passion, and beauty. The majority of the films follows the two characters separately after Guy’s departure, showing one partner’s faithfulness to the promise and the other’s infidelity to it. As the film unfolds it works as both a comedy and tragedy (according to the definitions of those terms in ancient Greek drama). The story of the partner who is faithful to the promise is a comedy—meaning that it has a happy ending—while the story of the unfaithful partner is a tragedy, including regret over past decisions that have shaped the character’s life in very negative ways.
Every second of Umbrellas is built around the promise of waiting. Before they make the promise, we see a typical young love that looks easy but once they are faced with the need to make the promise, the grief and insecurity of their separation takes hold. In such situations, what people promise one another often seems sincere but that doesn’t mean they’re really able or willing to carry it out since they simply don’t know what the fulfillment of that promise holds for them yet. Keeping promises may involve even more grief and despair and it does for the character faithful to the promise but it ultimately means a life free of regret because of that fidelity to promises made. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells its story about this reality of life in as entertaining and as romantic a way as could be possible.