Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

SPOILERS: Don't read until you've seen the film

This is a French musical from the 60s, about a pair of star crossed lovers, Genevieve and Guy. This film acheives what Scorsese's New York, New York and Coppola's One From The Heart attempt to do, namely make a film with all the glamour and style of a classic Hollywood musical, but also place the characters in a world that's more emotionally real. While those films poured on the nastiness, and thus undermined the essential pleasures of the genre, Umbrellas tells a more realistic story, but still keeps the fun and style of the best musicals. It's basically got all the things you'd want from a musical, while telling a story that doesn't hew strictly to the happy ending setups favored by Hollywood.

Unlike a lot of musicals, this one is entirely sung. A lot of contemporary audiences seem to have issues wth musicals, but when done well, it can create uniquely powerful cinema. The combination of music and visual is the most cinematic construction, and this film takes full advantage. The production design is great, making a world that's more stylish than reality, but doesn't cross over into fairy tale excess, and you never question the fact that all the characters are singing. A part of that is that the film doesn't do big production numbers, so you never get the sense that they're putting on a show for you. This is just the way they live their lives.

The really interesting thing about the film is the way it plays with your emotional attachments. In the beginning of the film, it seems like Guy and Genevieve are made for each other, and it's tough when Genevieve's mother is trying to keep them. Side note, but the mother acted and looked exactly like Emily Gilmore. I doubt there was a direct inspiration, but it was quite striking. Anyway, so you're initially attached to these two, and the news that Guy is going to war is quite sad.

Once he's gone however, Roland gradually develops as a character and, like Genevieve, we start to forget about Guy. In most romance films, you've got the true love and the guy she'd settle for. Normally this is done to build narrative tension, if you've got a woman with an abusive boyfriend or her true love, it's not much of a love triangle. However, when you've got the good, reliable guy, or the fiery, passionate love, it's tougher to decide. So, you're expecting Roland to be someone who's just there to bulid the tension, will she get together with this guy, or will she wait for her true love, Guy?

But, as things progress, Roland seems more and more like a good choice for Genevieve. One of the character types I've seen a lot in fiction recently is the ultra self deprecating guy, who is constantly insulting himself, seemingly as a way of ingratiating him to the audience. They first did this on Buffy with Riley, and then later with Ben. Veronica's cop boyfriend on Veronica Mars was a similar type. However, I wasn't really with these characters because the self deprecation seemed more like an act. With Roland, this is a guy who really is socially inept, and as a result you want Genevieve to be with him. When he agrees to raise her child as his won, you know that this is a great guy, and even if it's not a passionate love, it will probably be the best life for Genevieve and her daughter.

By the time they came to the bridge scene, where Roland says he will still marry her, it was pretty clear that she couldn't just abandon him to go with Guy. We've become emotionally invested in their relationship, so leaving him would mean losing any attachment to Genevieve. The thing that's brilliant about this segment is that the audience is going through the same thing as her, so when she looks at the picture and can barely remember Guy, we're feeling the same thing. Whereas once we really wanted the two of them together, now that is a distant memory.

But it's not for Guy, who returns from war to find his whole world shaken up. Initially he despairs, but gradually he too realizes that it might be better to go for a relationship with the person who clearly loves than to try and recapture something that was once, but now is gone. In his case, it means Madeleine. When the two of them sit together at the funeral, they're posed and shot in the same way that Roland and Genevieve were at their wedding, indicating the creation of a significant bond between them. I was definitely rooting for them to get together, and it was satisfying when he committed to a relationship with her.

Everything builds up to the fantastic last scene. Here we see how Madeleine and Guy's life has turned out. It's almost exactly like the life he imagined with Genevieve, and he seems quite happy. And then Genevieve drives up to get some gas for her car. Earlier in the film, we're led to believe that in some respects, both Genevieve are settling for someone else when they choose to get married, and that the real love they have is for each other. So, are we looking at a Before Sunset situation here, one last chance to recapture their true love?

Not quite, the ending of the film leaves us with the feeling that even though they were in love once, that time is passed, and each of them is happy with the life they have. I'm sure they both wonder what could have been, but when Guy's family returns, it's pretty clear that he's moved on from Genevieve and is fully committed to his marriage and his son. The film seems to be a direct reaction against the traditional musical ending, the young lovers find out that maybe passion isn't the only thing and when they settle, they've actually found people who they can love and share a life with. Genevieve's mother's claim that people only die from a broken heart in the movies is apparently true, though she lost Guy, she can move on and make a happy life for herself.

That final scene is a masterful fusion of music and visual. The snow falling at night is beautiful, and the large window in the gas station makes for a wondeful contrast of inside and outside. And the final pullback shot gives us wonderful emotional closure. The pullback shot is backed by a magnificent score cue, full of orchestral swells that build up the power of the moment. It reminds me a bit of the end of The Empire Strikes Back, in the way that the score builds up the emotion of the moment to this massive level, providing a fitting closure to the film.

This film really brought back the merits of the orchestral score for me. Moments like the ending and Guy's departure at the train station feature huge cues that make the moments really work. It's used in the manner of a lot of classical Hollywood scores, but unlike those scores it's not intrusive. Rather than trying to tell you how to feel, it's creating an external representation of the characters' emotions, and drawing you into their emotional world. Used poorly, a score like this can become almost comical in its excess, but when you're caught up in what the characters are going through, it serves to dramatically deepen your experience of the film. I'd rather see a film that goes for the emotional heights, and risks looking bad, than one that just sticks to easy, noncommital territory. This film goes for broke, and generally succeeds.

By subverting our narrative expectations, and not giving us the typical happy ending true love message, this film stands out as one of the best musicals I've seen. The characters feel very real and the story is emotionally compelling. This does pretty much everything you could want from a musical, and the final moments give it an emotional weight that few films acheive.

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