Early in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, two men argue about which is the better form of entertainment, operas or movies, with one guy saying that he prefers movies, because he doesn’t like all that singing in operas. The joke is that what we are watching is both a movie and an opera, for every line in the movie is sung.
In a typical musical, most of the dialogue is merely spoken, with songs being sung occasionally for some special reason. One of the things about opera that is strange is that people sing about ordinary stuff that hardly seems to warrant musical expression. For example, at the very beginning of this movie, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who works in a garage as an auto mechanic, is just about to leave for the day when his boss asks him if he can work overtime. He says that would be inconvenient, and he suggests Pierre instead, who says he can stay late. All this mundane conversation is sung to music, whereas it would only be spoken in an ordinary musical. Fortunately, the music is pleasant and easy to take. As in any opera, however, there are special musical pieces that stand out from the rest. In this case, two songs in particular have been translated into English and recorded, which are “I Will Wait for You” and “Watch What Happens.”
Jacques Demy, who wrote and directed this movie, is often said to have borrowed the plot from Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy, plays that were made into movies, especially the first two of the three, Marius (1931) and Fanny (1932). However, there are differences between these early movies and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that are so striking that they render the actual similarities superficial in comparison.
As for the story in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Guy and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) want to get married. However, he is drafted to fight the war in Algeria. On his last night before leaving, they make love. And you know what that means. When a woman in a movie has sex with a man just once, she gets pregnant. We then figure that either Guy will be killed in the war, or he will forget about her and fall in love with someone else. Either that, or she will be so desperate about covering up the shame of her pregnancy that she will marry another man. At first, Geneviève’s mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), is a little distressed about her daughter’s pregnancy, but after a while, neither she nor Geneviève seems unduly concerned about it. In other words, there is not sufficient desperation on the part of Geneviève to compel her to marry anyone.
Already we have several differences between this movie and corresponding parts of the Marseilles Trilogy. In the latter, the two lovers are Marius and Fanny. However, Marius is not forced to leave Fanny. He simply would rather go to sea and satisfy his wanderlust than marry her, and Fanny sacrifices her happiness and lets him go. As noted above, Guy would never have left Geneviève had he not been compelled to do so, for he wanted to marry her more than anything else.
In the process of trying to sell some of her jewelry to pay the bills, Madame takes Geneviève with her to a jewelry store, where they meet a jewelry wholesaler, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who immediately falls in love with Geneviève. Because he is rich and respectable, Madame wants Geneviève to accept his eventual proposal of marriage. She never really liked the idea of Geneviève’s marrying an auto mechanic, and in an effort to disparage Geneviève’s love for Guy, she earlier told her that she did not know what love is all about, that it is more than becoming enamored with someone’s face. This is ironic, because whereas Guy and Geneviève had gotten to know each other very well, all of Cassard’s love for Geneviève is based on his doing exactly what Madame ridicules, becoming enamored with someone’s face.
Surprisingly enough, instead of Guy forgetting about Geneviève, she starts forgetting about him. After only four months, she says it feels as though he has been gone for years, and that she is losing the feeling she had for him. She has to look at his picture to remember what he looks like. It is true that she has only received one letter from him in four months, but you have to figure that a man fighting a war might not have the luxury of writing regularly (in fact, he is wounded by a grenade). In any event, in the letter she receives from Guy, he writes that he is looking forward to coming home after his military service is over, marrying her, and seeing their child.
This is another big difference between the Marseilles Trilogy and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Fanny never stops loving Marius, even after she marries another man. But Geneviève’s love for Guy simply fades away in spite of her efforts to hold on to it.
As a result of her waning feelings for Guy, Geneviève ends up marrying Cassard. The movie could have given her the standard motive of a woman desperate to cover up the shame of her pregnancy, as in Fanny, but it does not. It is unlikely that she would have married Cassard had she not been pregnant, but we still get the sense that her decision to opt for a marriage of convenience was made possible by the brute fact that her love for Guy had faded.
Before Guy and Geneviève separate, they sing “I Will Wait for You.” The lyrics in the movie are a bit different from that of the popular recording of that song in English, but the thrust is the same. The two lovers express their undying love for each other. It reminds me of the movie Oliver (1968), in which Nancy sings the song “As Long as He Needs Me,” referring to her lover Bill, who has no need for her at all, and ends up murdering her. We have a similar irony with the song “I Will Wait for You.” Although the lyrics in the American version of the song say, “If it takes forever, I will wait for you,” Geneviève does not even manage to wait more than a few months.
Before being drafted, Guy was living with his dying aunt Élise (Mireille Perry), who was being tended to by a caregiver named Madeleine (Ellen Farmer). After Guy returns and discovers that Geneviève has moved away and married Cassard, he talks to Aunt Élise to see what she knows about Geneviève. He comments on several letters that were exchanged between Geneviève and himself, but most of them must have been written after she had married Cassard, since she earlier said she had only received one letter from Guy and that she did not know where to write him. In these subsequent letters, she apparently could not bring herself to tell Guy about her marriage. In the course of their conversation, he expresses surprise that Madeleine is still taking care of her. “Hasn’t she married yet?” he asks, to which Élise responds, “You know how well-behaved she is.” Come again? That’s a pretty cynical remark, even for a French woman. In any event, he eventually marries Madeleine, who we sense has been in love with Guy all along.
Guy and Geneviève finally meet again when she pulls into the filling station that he now owns. She says she never expected to see him again, and that it was just by chance that she decided to pass this way. She offers no explanation as to why she married someone else, and he does not ask her why she didn’t wait for him to return. She asks him if he would like to meet their daughter Françoise, who is sitting in the car. When he shakes his head No, we get the sense that this is neither from bitterness nor from any feeling that seeing his daughter would be painful for him. Rather, his feeling for their daughter is like the love he once had for Geneviève, something that is simply gone.
In Fanny, when Marius returns and finds out what happened, he wants the child, but Fanny’s husband won’t give him up, and Fanny, who still loves Marius, stays with her husband, once more sacrificing her happiness for that of others (i.e., for her husband and her child). But in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, when the former lovers finally meet again, Geneviève no longer loves Guy, Guy no longer loves Geneviève, and he is indifferent to the child they had together.
After Geneviève leaves the filling station, Madeleine and his son, who had been out Christmas shopping, return to the station, and we see that they are a happy family.
There is no villain in this movie. No one is to blame for what happened. That is just the way love is, a beautiful illusion that we think will last forever until it doesn’t.