On this year's Valentine's Day, I decided to acquaint my wife with a romantic French musical I had seen more than a dozen years ago in my French cinema class. I had already been in love with the nouvelle vague before taking that course, so I brought to it not only passion but also a rather good degree of knowledge. I occasionally winced when our professor mixed up director's names and could not believe my eyes that a masterpiece like Truffaut's Jules et Jim was not chosen as course content and was slightly shocked that Godard had also been excluded, while films like Hiroshima mon amour made the cut. And then one day our professor played us this particular French musical of telescopic colours and proportions.
The French film-maker Jacques Demy to me was rather unknown since he is rarely mentioned in the same breath of the most distinguished directors of this magnificent and revolutionary movement. And in my younger years, I had shunned musicals as a rule and winced again at re-runs of Sound of Music, a particular favorite among my parents, and I had not seen Singing in the Rain but only associated with and related to it in terms of Kubrick's bloodcurdling version in Clockwork Orange. The only musical I had embraced as an adolescent was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar because it combined, in my view quite successfully, the gospels with rock and roll.
What made Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg different from other musicals of those times was the astonishing experiment to have every single line of the movie sung by their respective actors. So we have the characters, car mechanics in the beginning, singing in the repair shop about how they are feeling and what they are planning to do over the weekend as they wash their greasy hands under running water. All of this is so immersed in bright candy colors that it makes your eyes hurt.
It took me a while to get used to the colors and the constant singing, but after a while when the story began to get going I felt more comfortable with the whole situation. I began to find this Demy film accompanied by the brilliant jazzy and romantic score of the great Michel Legrand rather interesting. The story is as romantic as it gets, and even in my younger adult years it moved me. The conclusion was rather tragic, especially for the hopeless romantic I was back then who effectively lacked life experience.
But the movie stuck with me. I still remembered the beginning and the ending and a beautiful duet sung by the two lovers in the first part. It took me a long time to find this jewel, but finally for this year's Valentine's Day I managed to showcase it to my wife. And it not only stunned me in ways I had not thought and felt about the movie and its director before, but it left me teary-eyed.
If you have not seen it yet, please be aware of major spoilers coming up right about now: The story is simple and as lean and straightforward as possible. A young woman falls in love with a young man who enlists for the army and will be absent for a couple of years. She is devastated and begs him to stay; he does not listen to her but is confident that their love will outlive their temporary absence. They swear to each other eternal love and have a night of (I assume unforgettable) sex.
The girl's mother is the owner of the umbrella shop. She is shocked that her daughter is thinking and talking about love, but moreover, she is worried about her clandestine meetings with him. It does not help that he is a penniless, aimless and ambitionless young man (his dream is to own his own garage one day). It so happens that the mother is suffering financial difficulties since her shop is not bringing up sufficient dividends.
As she is pawning her favorite jewel, chance has it that she runs into Roland Cassard who happens to be a jeweler, but more importantly he is rich, young and good-looking (a triple benefit considering the dire circumstances). The pawn shop owner turns her down as it is a risky business to accept her jewel, but Cassard steps in and is eager to please the mother and her accompanying beautiful daughter. He is not however aware that this young woman he has set his eyes on is, in fact, pregnant from her lover serving in the army.
This is where Demy's brilliance becomes to me apparent only now. Roland Cassard is a character who has been in one of his earlier films called Lola. There he finds himself enamored with the woman who turns him down. As a result, he leaves town and goes to become a rich jeweler.
In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg he admits to the mother that he had been in love once. We are given a brief flashback of a stairway in the movie Lola, something which the unacquainted and untrained eye will completely miss out on. The way they meet is also an echo and reference to how he meets a younger version of the woman he loves. (This is getting too complicated so I will leave it at that and hope you watch Lola either first or after this movie to fully understand and appreciate this film.)
In fact, although there is not much characterization here, we know from the previous film that Cassard is a good and honorable gentleman. So it comes as no surprise that he accepts the young woman with expectant child of another without much hesitation. They get married, which saves business and keeps the two women out of financial disaster.
The young woman's decision comes not easy, but she has stopped receiving letters from him and simply assumes that either he found another woman, or else, he has died. It is also upon her mother's bidding and the financial hardship and impending doom that she accepts to marry Roland despite not being in love with him.
So the next part is the return of our young hero. He is fine, but he had suffered a minor leg wound, which had kept him in hospital for some time, hence he had not written to her for a while. To his shock and surprise he finds out that the shop is closed and his beloved has moved. He has only his aunt, who is taken care of by a timid young woman who happens to be in love with him. So when the aunt dies, he still keeps her around. In fact, he marries her, which makes her very happy.
Flash forward. He has managed to save up for his garage and one snowy winter when his wife and young boy called François leave the gas station, the other woman with her (and his!) child Françoise stops to fill up her gas tank. They immediately recognize each other. Their love is still there alongside pain, guilt, and awkwardness. They are trying to come to terms with their emotions (singing to each other of course) and they are interrupted by one of the gas attendants who asks whether she wants leaded or unleaded gas.
He has already made up his mind though. He does not want to see his daughter waiting in the car and wishes her well. She is visibly moved and does not explain to him her own feelings or her situation. And why should she. The past is gone and both are set on their new lives. Their love is nothing but a remembrance of times past.
Now this I had interpreted as a sad ending, but now as a family man I reconsider it as a happy one. The final scene is indeed one of joy. His wife and child return; he hugs and kisses them, and they all go inside together, a happy family. He chose them and gave up his love. She, on the other hand, will return to Roland Cassard, and the status quo will remain.
If this is not romantic to the nth degree, I do not know what is, and the music swirls to a crescendo of violins. Normally, I would be bothered by it and wince, but I am too moved and find it indeed appropriate, especially when considering the turbulent emotions each of the main characters must have been going through at the time. And Jacques Demy is a definite force to be reckoned with, not only in French cinema, but in general. Ironically, this movie lost in the Oscars to the Sound of Music!