“Tous ces gens qui chantent, moi, tu comprends, ça me fait mal.”
I will never truly understand why some people insist on hating musicals so, the rich diversity of the genre meaning there’s such range and to dismiss them all in the same breath feels lazy. But with that in mind as I sat down to rewatch Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, one does have to recognise that this most glorious of film musicals does take some getting used to. The entire film is sung as recitative, right down to the last piece of dialogue and though Michel Legrand’s score swells with such beautiful themes as ‘I Will Wait For You’, the near-operatic style is resolutely unforgiving.
But this total immersion is what makes the film work, the heightened colours of the costumes and set create a special visual language that nods to the world of Hollywood musicals but rather than the sometimes cloying saccharine of those films, here the flavour is more of a sherbet lemon – there’s sweetness in the romantic headiness of Geneviève and Guy’s teenage relationship but sourness too as things turn bittersweet, Demy doesn’t protect his characters from the harsh realities of life as pregnancy, debt, conscription and parental pressure come into play over naïve dreams of love.
So spread over six years or so, we follow umbrella shop-girl Geneviève and mechanic Guy through the trials of life and the ups and downs of love in Northern France, Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuevo are dubbed delights (Danielle Licari and José Bartel’s voices were used respectively) connecting beautifully in their passion and during their enforced separation, Deneuve demonstrates just some of the reasons for her enduringly successful career with a nuanced portrayal of disillusionment. Castelnuevo also gets his turn to impress with the episodic structure of the film giving him the final act to work out his place in the Cherbourg he returns to.
Much as I would love it to, I can’t see that watching Les Parapluies de Cherbourg would actually convert people to the world of musicals, even as a suggestion of what huge range the form can take. But I can say so safe in the knowledge that they are wrong, this is a towering achievement of film.