Published Jun 29, 2013After following up his critically praised directorial debut Lola with the sombre and exceedingly didactic gambling drama, Bay of Angels, it was clear that Jacques Demy's auteur trajectory was that of deconstructing the inherent falsities of pursuing happiness. Whether seeking the thrill of the gambling high—sustaining a glamourous lifestyle on risk and indulgence—or attempting to recapture the thrill of first love, his early black and white films tended towards making harsh realities accessible to an audience by veiling tragedy with convention and whimsy.
This why the seeming departure, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is as predictable as it is surprising, having the same tendency towards analyzing human disappointments while gussying it up with a visually stylized and shockingly colourful musical template. He still focuses on moody seaside lovers suffering ennui, but in this, his third feature film, they sing their lives, juxtaposing depressing reality with the sunshine and playfulness of an aesthetically prodigal opera of despondency.
Back from Lola, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) sets his sights on the young Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), the daughter of an umbrella shop owner with different dreams of her own. While Roland seemingly hasn't learned from past mistakes, still pining after women that demonstrate little romantic interest in him, Genevieve is in the midst of experiencing her first flirtation with passion, discussing marriage with car mechanic Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo).
Her mother (Anne Vernon) knows better, being a practical widow trying to scrape by and keep her shop open to sustain a life where marriage isn't a viable security guarantee. She encourages her daughter not to jump into anything, which becomes a moot point when Guy is drafted into the army, leaving the financially sound Roland to sweep in and make his move, wanting Genevieve even though she's pregnant with another man's baby.
Since this is a musical, there is little left unsaid. Emotions and ideas are spoken through slightly melodic dialogue, which hums along inoffensively despite having little variance in structure and tone. While it does help reinforce Demy's interest in contradictions, thematically exploring the idea of happiness as an unsustainable and oft-unrealistic concept while superficially utilizing a similarly peppy format to challenge the audience, there's something less personal and moving about it.
It's a gimmick and an experimental departure from his established style. The intended ideas are effectively conveyed, but in exploiting a far more elaborate and dramatized binary, Demy also created a less introspective work that, in a way, is almost pretentious and smug. There's still a sense of catharsis and empathy when the prescribed "happily ever after" formula inevitably implodes, but it doesn't sting as much as it did back when Lola was selling the idea of obtainable sexuality and romance in the Cabaret.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Jacques Demy retrospective at 6:30pm on June 29th, 2013. (Zeitgeist)