not in our stars, but in ourselves
I am a sentimental old fluff. I like movie musicals, because I like all the things that usually go into them: song, dance, excess, emotion, and movie magic. Are they, more often than not, extremely silly? Oh, maybe. Do I mind? Usually, no. Gimme that Freed Unit, baby. I love it. Perversely, however, I do not often enjoy musical theatre or opera. Why? In the case of musical theatre, I hate the very theatricality of it. Everything is magnified, exploded, turned up to 11 for the sake of the cheap seats in the back, and I find it absolutely toxic to forming any sort of emotional connection with what I’m supposed to care about onstage. Opera does this, but even bigger, even louder, in a foreign language, and with every single word – from mundane side conversations to grandiose arias – sung in recitative. No, thanks.
And here we have The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a movie I vaguely remembered disliking when I saw it in French class some lifetimes ago. I was curious how it would strike me now. Every word in Umbrellas is sung. It is a movie of recitatives. Whether it’s a customer asking for a black umbrella, a jeweler describing his wares, a set of young lovers vowing eternal love, or a mother lamenting her desperate financial straits – it’s sung. The plot is about as simple as can be: two young lovers, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), want to get married immediately. Geneviève’s mother, Mme Emery (Anne Vernon), objects; Guy is drafted into the Algerian War. The lovers are separated for two years – a lifetime for a sixteen-year-old girl – and other forces interfere with their true love. C’est fini, c’est dommage.
Those of us raised on Hollywood musicals usually expect a happy ending. Aside from Pre-Code madhouses like Gold Diggers of 1933, which ends with the heart-stopping “Remember My Forgotten Man,” the musical is most often a genre of sunny skies and mating for life. Well, we’re not in Hollywood. We’re in Cherbourg. Umbrellas is much more frank about the power of true love – especially if it’s your very first love – and its insufficiency in the real world. Those who start out like a house on fire usually end up the same; or, to put it into lyrics:
It was just one of those things,
Just one of those crazy flings,
One of those bells that now and then rings —
Just one of those things.
It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights.
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
Just one of those things.
If we’d thought a bit, of the end of it,
When we started painting the town,
We’d have been aware that our love affair
Was too hot not to cool down.
So goodbye, dear, and Amen.
Here’s hoping we meet now and then.
It was great fun,
But it was just one of those things.
That might as well be Umbrellas‘ mission statement. (Not that it appears in the film.) In the end, Guy and Geneviève are married to other people, content if not emotionally fulfilled, and aware that what they had is lost forever. It’s not King Lear, but it’s pretty somber for a candy-colored musical.
I confess: I was put off by the recitative. It’s not so much that I didn’t buy it as a device. After a few minutes, you get used to it, and you accept that this is how the entire hour and a half will go. No, what put me off was the fact that even though all the men were singing admirably, in full voice, the women all seemed to be straining at the very edges of their vocal range. High, fluttery, thin, sub-coloratura quivering – and, incredibly, all the voices were dubbed by what I assume were professional singers. That’s not Deneuve singing “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi”: that’s Danielle Licari. Ms. Licari probably has a perfectly lovely voice, as long as she’s within her natural range. Up in the stratosphere that Michel Legrand’s music forces her voice, however, it sounds entirely too airy for emotions this keenly felt. Furthermore, even though I “bought” the recitative device, I found that it tended to stretch flat all the emotional impact I’m sure I was meant to feel. In more traditional Hollywood musicals, the songs burst onto the screen as an excess of emotion, as an expression of what speech alone can’t possibly accomplish. You can tell your partner how much you enjoy being with them, but isn’t it that much more sublime to sing and dance it – and then to carry on with your regularly scheduled programming? There’s a reason so many people – the dancers themselves included – interpret Fred and Ginger’s numbers as stand-ins for sex. And there is a reason they don’t dance all the goddamn time: very few of us can have constant coitus. Who has the stamina? Yeesh.
But I digress. My real point is that I, personally, do not care for musicals where the music never ends. And yet, Umbrellas is a lovely, sad, understanding little film. There is emotional depth there – heartbreak, even – even if I’m too distracted by my distaste for endless song to experience it when I watch. Plenty of other people feel it, including Futurama writers.
As Jim Ridley notes in his Criterion essay:
Curiously enough, one of the strangest yet most astute homages to the movie is a 2002 episode of the animated science-fiction sitcom Futurama, in which the cryogenically thawed hero debates whether to clone a DNA sample from his dog, left a millennium earlier with the instruction not to move from his spot. He ultimately decides that the dog must have moved on and leaves the matter be—at which point the show cues a time-lapse montage of the dog waiting faithfully for his owner for years, until the moment he slumps to the sidewalk. The music playing over the montage is Connie Francis’s recording of “I Will Wait for You” (the Americanized version of Legrand’s song)—that anthem of a finite forever and an eternally preserved present that never loses its ache.
I’m not crying, you’re crying. Shut up. Okay, Umbrellas is good. I was wrong. Just stop making me think about poor Seymour.
N.B. Normally, when I write about movies or TV shows – believe it or not – I jot down a brief outline before I start. This is all off-the-cuff, on-the-fly, or whatever your favorite idiom for “hastily” happens to be, so please forgive any noticeable dip in quality. Or don’t.