Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) & The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

A double feature at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, and yet another reminder of how, even though there's traffic and pollution in Los Angeles, that it's worth it to live here, because where else (besides New York or Paris) can you get a chance to see two amazing musicals from Jacques Demy on the big screen, the way they were meant to be experienced?

I haven't seen Demy's other films, but what these two have in common is that they're musicals set in commonplace, everyday settings; Cherbourg is about a pair of young (very young) lovers in the late '50s separated by France's war in Algeria and economic insecurity, while Rochefort is about a pair of sisters in a smallish town in western France yearning for love and more out of life. Demy shot his films on location, in apartments and shops instead of the traditional Hollywood practice of filming on lushly designed soundstages, and it gives the films a typically French New Wave feeling of existing in the real world instead of in the Hollywood dream factory - to a point.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a reinvention of the frothy Hollywood musical, taking place in a world that's still recognizable down-to-earth, yet nonetheless a fantasy construct nonetheless with a plot that's straight out of a Shakespearean comedy, or an Astaire/Rogers movie: twin sisters played by Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are searching for their true loves, not knowing that their fantasy men are lurking just around the corner in the town, or arriving on the same day they're planning to leave, and so on. It's the kind of movie where one character will exit a scene and their unknowing romantic-partner-to-be will enter, seconds later, from the other side of the frame, not knowing what they narrowly missed. The music, by Michel Legrand, is jazzy and hummable, the widescreen, pastel-colored visuals are bright and attractive, people will drop into dance for no reason at any moment, and the whole movie is pretty irresistable, like a fine fizzy champagne.

After seeing a concoction like Rochefort, Demy's earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels a little dingy and narrow, but that feeling disappears once Catherine Deneuve (incredibly young and beautiful) and Nino Castelnuovo sing their first duet, a puppy-love ditty that succeeds because of the movie's charm and conviction. Where Rochefort is a more typical people-break-into-song-and-dance musical, Cherbourg is a mini-opera, no dancing, all singing. And what really elevates Cherbourg, for me, is that it's not just a fizzy musical designed to give the audience a fun time (although it is that) but it also takes its characters seriously as real people with real, relatable problems instead of turning everybody into an archetype, and there's real depth and tragedy in this story of the teenage blonde who gets pregnant when her boyfriend gets shipped off to war.

The reviews I've seen of both films say that the primary theme linking Demy's films was that of fate, or destiny, which comes through pretty clear in Rochefort, where every character has a clearly delineated romantic partner that they end up with by the end of the film, in spite of all the ups and downs along the way. Cherbourg, on the other hand, has a more sensible perspective: even though the young loves proclaim their undying love to each other in the film's first act (as everyone does in a musical), the long separation and changes in their lives make them very different people by the end of the movie. When they meet again after years apart, there's a wistful quality in their interaction, but also an awkwardness, and the sense that, whatever used to be, is no longer; the two of them each look satisfied with their new family and lifestyle, and predestination seems not to be a factor.

What links the two films, though, is how totally pleasureable and invigorating they each are. I haven't been a fan of most of the new wave of Hollywood musicals in the last few years - they've mostly struck me as clumsy (Dreamgirls) or trying too hard (Moulin Rouge) or just kind of flat (Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray) so it's nice to see a pair of absolute must-see musicals in the middle of the Summer.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: 9/10
The Young Girls of Rochefort: 8/10


Rusty James said...

have you seen Donkey Skin?

Jeff McMahon said...

I haven't, just these two; but since they were both so great I want to see Lola and Donkey Skin as soon as I can get a chance.

Craig Kennedy said...

I haven't seen the Young Girls of Rochefort and Umbrellas it's been awhile so I can't expound thoughtfully here. I wanted to say though that I did how you mixe it up with old and new movies and you mix up genres as well.

You've got pretty adventurous tastes and I like hearing your impressions of the stuff you come across.

Jeff McMahon said...

Thanks, Craig, I just wish I had more time to devote to writing because I can tell my thoughts suffer when I try to just churn them out. Thankfully, I'll be unemployed in a couple of weeks, so there's that.

rusty james said...

I saw Donkey Skin in some theater in Tribeca I think. Great experience.

Supposedly it's a famous "bad movie" but I don't get that. Some of it's songs are intentionally silly but it's a wonderful and imaginative film.

Sam Juliano said...

I absolutely adore THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and modestly like ROCHEFORT. The former is so infectious and fully enjoyment that it kind of resists serious criticism.

Very good treatment here.