One of these days, somebody may come along and make another great musical. I'm not talking about Pennies From Heaven, the British miniseries (and Hollywood remake) that defined the impossibility of making another great musical. I'm not talking about likely embarrassments like the forthcoming Evita, either. (If you ask me, the best thing that could happen to Broadway musicals right now might be the announcement of Andrew Lloyd Webber's imminent retirement.) I want an intelligent, tuneful extravaganza along the lines of something Stanley Donen might have made -- Singin' in the Rain or even Funny Face.
You can hold your breath waiting for that to happen -- when you get frustrated, but before you've quite turned blue, visit your local art house for the revival of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This singular little production was first exported from France in 1964, and while it's not quite as intoxicated on its own production values as the liveliest MGM musicals, it probably benefits from its perspective on the self-aware trailing edge of the vaunted Nouvelle Vague. Director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand tread confidently through dangerous territory, concocting the film as a "pure" musical -- almost an operetta, with no spoken lines of dialogue at all, only song. In an oddly prescient casting coup, the relative ingenue Catherine Deneuve was given the lead role of Genevieve, the young daughter of an umbrella shop owner. She is in love somewhat beneath her station, with Guy, an auto mechanic played sweetly by Nino Castelnuevo. Naturally, Genevieve's mother registers gentle but firm disapproval of this relationship, and it's with a mixture of pragmatism and relief that she consoles her daughter on the news that her sweetheart has been drafted into two years of military service.
The film is divided into three sections, and for my money, the first is at once the most melodramatic and the most affecting. Titled "Departure," this act chronicles the headlong affection of the two lovers and the lush, nearly intolerable torture exacted on them when they learn of their impending separation. It culminates in a wrenching, tear-soaked railway platform farewell that's no less powerful for being a cinematic hand-me-down. A tremendous asset is Legrand's love theme, which has already intimated itself into the film's texture, but here is sweeping and thunderous in full Dolby reverb.
I'm usually wary of remixed soundtracks, but it does seem to make sense with material as musical as this (or the reissued Taxi Driver, which rated similar treatment for Bernard Herrmann's fine score). As remixed by Legrand himself, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg sounds fine and looks even better, although some of the more colorful shots bear artifacts of the technicolor restoration process -- the original Eastmancolor release negative has been unusable for most of the film's life.
Even so, it might have been nice if the color scheme weren't quite so insistent. While the relentless mirroring of loud wallpaper with equally shrill, matching costumes helps to establish a level of ironic detachment that may be key to the film, it certainly breaks the spell of the flatly gorgeous song and earnest performances. And after the nearly perfect first segment, the second of three acts is a little tiresome, plodding toward a foregone conclusion.
I hope I'm not spoiling anything if I tell you that the second act is titled "Absence" and the third "Return." While Guy is away, Genevieve's mother is given the opportunity to quietly encourage her to marry her new suitor, a world-traveling jewelry dealer. Genevieve remains fond of Guy, but finally relents and agrees to be married (viewers may note that, even in this relatively fresh-faced persona, Deneuve was acquiring her reputation as aloof and untouchable.) In the third act, Guy returns and finds that -- well, he finds that everything has changed.
It's perhaps a characteristic of Demy's New Wave sensibility (he had recently married Agnes Varda, after all) that a film this delirious in its visuals and rapturous emoting can be, at the same time, so distressingly sober. Demy's film doesn't give Guy the chance to woo and win back his beloved, and it barely allows him his own sadness. The real sadness, interestingly, is our own. These lives have not turned out the way they had once seemed predestined, nor does the film turn out the way we had hoped it might. The final scene, which at last reunites the two, ever so briefly, is perhaps unavoidable, but this story is an inexorably sorrowful one. Denied our escapist pleasure, we can only watch, misty-eyed, as the cinematic dream falls apart -- as the musical, presumably, deconstructs itself.