The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (France, 1964) It’s all in French, and it’s all sung, every word of dialogue. I first saw this in 1966 and it had a profound effect on my life. I had just gone through a shattering emotional break-up, and was floundering around at Michigan State, not quite sure what to do with myself.
Then here comes this simple story of two young people deeply in love. He is drafted (I was also waiting for Lyndon to send me off to die in Southeast Asia) and must go off for two years. They sing “I Will Wait For You.” He doesn’t write very often (he’s a garage mechanic, she works in her mother’s umbrella shoppe), and she loses faith. She is pregnant. She marries a quite decent man, a wealthy jewel dealer. He comes home, is disconsolate, tries to drink himself to death, until the girl next door who has always been in love with him rescues him.
Six years later she drives a fancy Mercedes into his gas station and they meet, quite by accident. It’s awkward. They both have children, and he is the father of hers. They part. The end.
I was such a wreck I couldn’t even get out of my theater seat for ten minutes. I left that theater and knew I was done with college. I had no idea what I would do, didn’t know that at the same time thousands and thousands of my peers were dropping out and going to California or New York, but from that moment I never went back to another class. That January I set out on the road from Texas with a friend and twenty-four hours later I stepped out of the car of our last hitchhiked ride (maybe setting a Fort Worth to San Francisco hitching speed record, for all I know) at the corner of Haight and Stanyan Streets, in the City by the Bay. And that, as Robert Frost said, has made all the difference. So, in a way, a movie changed my life.
That’s my story. As for the movie itself, I hadn’t seen it in maybe thirty-five years, and I was astonished at how many of the musical themes I remembered. Most of it, of course, is what they call recitative in opera, not arias. But I found myself anticipating lines of dialogue. Much of this movie must have burned itself into my memory.
It is a lovely movie, totally splashed with color. The music is great, the singing (dubbed by others) is first-rate. It’s amazing to this English speaker how lovely even the most pedestrian lines sound in French. “You smell of gasoline,” she says, and it’s pure poetry. Catherine Deneuve was twenty, playing seventeen, and she is of course one of the great faces in the history of faces.