Romance and realism are mixed together in surprising and unforgettable ways in Jacques Demy’s 1964 masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. At first glance the film appears to be another piece of escapist fluff—a brightly colored musical about a beautiful girl who falls in love with a handsome young man. But as the story unfolds, those fairy tale trappings—the colors, the melodies, the impossibly beautiful faces—carry a gathering weight of irony.
As film critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times says in the video above, the film is one of the most romantic ever made, yet at the same time the story is “pure kitchen sink realism, suitable maybe for a Raymond Carver story or a Bruce Springsteen song.” It features Catherine Deneuve as a 17-year-old girl who works in her mother’s umbrella shop and falls in love with a 20-year-old garage mechanic, played by Nino Castelnuovo. “All of the characters face very difficult, very real problems,” says Scott, “and all of them try to do the right thing, which turns out to be pretty definitively unromantic.”
Unlike Hollywood musicals, in which the characters speak dialogue and periodically break into song, every word in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is sung. The film received the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and was an international hit. Despite all the success, the film has been widely misunderstood, as Pauline Kael lamented during a 2000 interview. “One of the sad things about our time, I think,” Kael said, “is that so many people find a movie like that frivolous and negligible. They don’t see the beauty in it, but it’s a lovely film—original and fine.”