5:30 PM EST, December 26, 2013
Maybe this is true of most films worth revisiting. But each time I see "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" after a few years have passed, its qualities and cumulative impact are never quite what I remembered. It's a tougher-minded creation than its reputation for gushy romanticism suggests. Well, it's both, really: gushy romanticism with a clear-eyed c'est la vie maturity about the way love goes sometimes.
Director Jacques Demy's gently stylized and gorgeously photographed "film opera" was a big hit in 1964, and it turned the young, untrained Catherine Deneuve into a major star, though much of the musical's delicate bittersweetness comes from seeing this beguilingly self-conscious newcomer feel her way through the role of the Cherbourg shopkeeper in love with the local garage mechanic, played by Nino Castelnuovo. This is the plot, simplicity itself: young love, interrupted by Algerian war; pregnancy; the boy, injured, never writes; and the shopkeeper has another suitor, a wealthy Parisian jeweler.
"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is what musical-theater geeks call a sung-through musical, with all the dialogue and recitative delivered as conversational accompaniment to composer Michel Legrand's joyously diverse score. (For a terrible sung-through musical, see the film version of "Les Miserables.") Two of the songs in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" became standards, with English-language lyrics, and throughout the '60s and '70s there wasn't an elevator in existence that wasn't emitting Muzak renditions of "I Will Wait for You," the main theme, and the more insinuating and inspired "Watch What Happens."
The film is back this week at the Music Box Theatre, in a restored digital presentation. The colors are fantastic. Legrand's score sounds so crisp, it might have been recorded yesterday. At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Demy's unicorn of a classic — never to be duplicated — was screened as part of the Cannes Classics sidebar, on an appropriately rainy night. Legrand was there, and Cannes jury member Christoph Waltz was there too, not for jury duty, but simply because he loved the movie.
It is a small picture, a boutique musical. But it's lovely. This is the part I always forget: It's a love story that does not take shortcuts (though there's plenty of elegant shorthand in the techniques employed; the running time is an efficient 91 minutes). There are no villains. Life in Cherbourg, charming, suffocating, provincial, limitless in its romantic possibility, goes on. The film creates a fairy tale with a profoundly humane coda. The scope of the picture may be finite, but it's a big-screen experience to the core.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:31
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC