Last night I rewatched one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen: Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). Throughout his career, Demy made many striking films – in terms of cinematography, costume design, lighting, music, acting, subject matter, dialogue, and so on. Demy is a bit of an outlier of the Nouvelle Vague, fitting more into the “Rive Gauche” group of filmmakers (which also includes his wife, Agnès Varda). I think Demy’s work sets him apart from the Nouvelle Vague – he is not easily definable or containable. Some of his films – such as Lola (1961) and Le baie des anges (1963) – look like Nouvelle Vague films, with their stark black and white cinematography and portable cameras and lighting, but Demy has his own way of balancing European art film style with classical Hollywood style.
Les Parapluies is Demy’s first film in colour – and it really, truly is in colour. Every aspect of the mise-en-scène is carefully composed: the settings, the costumes, the actors’ hair and makeup, and the lighting. Everything is heightened in this film, in order to highlight the most important narrative and thematic elements. Nothing in this film is treated as trivial: the visual and aural stylization indicates that everything is meant to be noticed and taken seriously, from people greeting each other (“bonjour!”) to grand proclamations of love (“Guy, je t’aime, je t’aime).
The lighting is bright and solid all the way through the film: there are no shadows, and no harsh contrasts. No figure can hide, everyone is always visible, painfully so at times. Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) cannot hide her relationship with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) from her strict mother (Anne Vernon), and she cannot hide her pregnancy from Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), her suitor after Guy leaves for military service. The lighting is always bright, even when tragic events take place, such as Guy’s Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) passing away, or when Guy parts from Geneviève for his two-year military service.
Set designer Bernard Erein created a bright, candy-coloured world for this film to take place in. Various doors and windows in the city of Cherbourg were painted in bright colours, contributing to the stylized mise-en-scène. Every room in both Guy’s and Geneviève’s apartments are covered in electrically colourful paint and wallpaper. The Emery’s umbrella shop has bright pink wallpaper, with fashionable umbrellas hanging all over the walls. Characters wear colour co-ordinated costumes which go hand in hand with the settings which they inhabit. Women have beautifully styled and fashionable hairdos. Catherine Deneuve’s hair is bright, bleached blonde, and she often wears coloured bows to match her clothing. Her mother frequently discusses her auburn curls, and her desire to get a haircut. Madeline (Ellen Farner), Aunt Elise’s caretaker often wears colourful headbands which match her outfits – at one point, she wears a bright orange outfit which matches the neon orange café she sits drinking coffee at. Women wear bright pink, orange, and baby blue dresses, often matching or standing in contrast with the wallpaper. Sailors and military men wear bright white uniforms, standing out against the deep red walls of the bars and dance halls. Even the garage in which Guy works is painted bright red, providing a shock of vibrance to a place that would normally be considered drab and boring.
But this is not a world where anything is drab or boring. The most prominent stylistic aspect of this film is the fact that every scene is sung-through. Legrand’s score dominates the film, and characters do not speak, they sing. This adds to the sense that everything is important – everything seems magical, even. Guy sings to his customers and his co-workers at the garage, telling them that he and Geneviève are going to the opera to see Carmen. His co-worker delightedly sings that he prefers the cinema. Geneviève frequently runs up to Guy and passionately sings about how much she loves him. Her mother sings her frustration with her daughter’s romantic longing for Guy. This is a film in which dialogue is important – characters pour their hearts out and share their honest feelings through what they say, but in this case, they sing what they want to say. This creates a sense of urgency for everything that is said, even the simplest, off-hand remarks and greetings.
As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his brilliant article on Les Parapluies, the vibrant imagery works together with the lush, emotional singing in order to heighten even the most banal dialogue. Demy has created one of the most unique works of cinema here in that this is a fairy-tale about middle and lower-class charcters living in Cherbourg in the 1960s. Nothing fantastic happens, and yet, it looks feels as though something magical is always happening. This is the power of Demy’s filmmaking – he creates visual and aural confections (along with Michel Legrand) that give us the sense that we have fallen into an old MGM musical, when what is really being dealt with are questions of class, gender, love, youth, and French city life. Demy’s powerful mise-en-scène and unique storytelling style work together and place him outside any kind of neat organizational marker.