'Umbrellas' still a classic


Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964), a beautiful restoration of which opens today at the Charles, is undoubtedly a classic, but whether it's a classic of classicism or a classic of kitsch is still open to debate.

This is one of the great gimmick movies of all time, comparable in its dead-on zaniness to the all-midget western "The Terror of Tiny Town" or the all-kid gangster movie "Bugsy Malone."

This is an all-singing non-musical. But they don't exactly sing songs. In fact, the movie has no songs. It has no numbers, at least not in the way of the official show-biz formula, in which the "realistic drama" magically halts, the characters break into song VTC and dance, amplify the emotion of the moment musically, then return to the convention of realism.

No: no songs, no dance, all singing. That's all they do. They sing.

They sing: "Please check my oil." They sing: "The taxes are due!" They sing: "Excuse me, I have to go to the potty."

They never talk.

Why? Well, I couldn't say. I can say that the singing certainly confers on the otherwise slight materials a uniqueness it otherwise would not boast.

The story is a whisper of a rumor: A handsome young mechanic and a beautiful young girl fall in love. He is drafted but impregnates her on his last day before shipping off. He spends two years in Algeria. She cannot wait, marries a rich man. Years later they meet again, share an epiphany about what might have been but return to their prosperous, boring lives. End of story.

It's a thrill to see the magnificent Catherine Deneuve at this tender age, though the thrill is somewhat diluted by the fact that it's not her singing.

Still, the piece remains singular, beloved by people who possibly don't remember it clearly, or remember its radicalism as if that's a significant virtue of itself. In fact, the conceit feels a little tepid today, when de-construction of narrative expectations is the hallmark of post-modernism.

Moreover, the music, by Michel Legrand, sounded a little tinny to my ear, a kind of imitation Nelson Riddle, that brand of over-produced sound held to be the epitome of professionalism in the late '50s. Legrand eventually mastered the American idiom, going on to a Hollywood career and three Oscars. But it's not nearly as good as the American stuff it imitates.

'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg'

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo

Directed by Jacques Demy

Released by Zeitgeist Films

Unrated (no objectionable material)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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