Fifty years ago this week (on my birthday) I went to see a new French-language film at an eastside Manhattan theatre....and my life changed - for the better. The film was THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, from writer-director Jacques Demy, and it made such a powerful impression on me that it helped confirm my decision to switch careers in mid-stream. Shortly thereafter I gave up a rather successful public relations business to embark on the wild and wooly world of making movies. (A decision I've never regretted.) All of this came to mind on Friday when I went to Landmark's Nuart Theatre here to see a new digitally-restored version of the same film. (The Nuart is that single-screen theatre at 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. (310) 473-8530, just west of the 405 Freeway, with lots of street parking around the corner. They pop their popcorn several times a day and serve a decent cup of coffee)
Catherine at the opening of the film.
The two young lovers, Deneuve and Castelnuovo. all photo from Criterion Distribution
Demy's film was set in the Normandy port city of Cherbourg in the late '50s, and the moment the movie began all those years ago I realized I was watching a true phenomenon. All of the dialogue was sung in recitative...every word sung to the haunting, lyrical music of a composer named Michel Legrand. A folk opera, if you will. The film opens on the stunning, innocent face of a 17-year old girl, Genevieve, played by an unknown 20-year old actress, Catherine Deneuve. We encounter her working in the financially-fraught umbrella shop of her mother, Madame Emery, played by Anne Vernon. And we quickly learn that the girl is madly in love with a handsome young garage mechanic, Guy, played by Nino Castelnuovo. The fly in the ointment is his draft notice to serve two years in the French army fighting a rebellion in Algiers. He goes off to war leaving a pregnant young girlfriend. With lack of communication on his part, she finally l relents to the entreaties of her mother and rich young diamond merchant, and she marries him in the grand cathedral. When the wounded Guy returns, he finds the shop has been sold and the married Genevieve has left town. Embittered, he has work problems until he is saved by a young caretaker who has always loved him. With his grandmother's bequest, he opens an American-style garage and prospers, now with a child of his own. The poignant coda is six years later, on Christmas eve, when a mink-clad, affluent Genevieve and her (their) daughter stops for gas at his station. They talk in the office and she ask him if he wants to meet his daughter. He wryly smiles and begs off. They embrace and she drives off as he greets his wife with a kiss and plays in the snow with his son. I admit that I was crying all through the scene.
Another view of the innocent young girl.
The continuous music by Michel and the magnificent color photography by Jean Rabier contribute mightily to the utter charm of the film. The 71-year old Catherine Deneuve was on Charlie Rose's TV show this week plugging her new film, On My Way, a picture about a woman who decides to take a road trip with her unruly granddaughter. We saw a clip where she encounters a young man in a bar and the next morning, when they awake, he comments that "You must have been stunning when you were young," Somewhat matronly now, she is still stunning. That film opens at the Landmark on March 21st. My history with her: I had met a famous French novelist in Paris, Joseph Kessel, and he gave me a copy of his new novel, Belle de Jour, along with a brief film option. I wrote a screenplay adaptation and through friends, got it to Deneuve, who immediately responded that she would do the movie. (Remember, a bored young housewife who goes to work in a neighborhood brothel in the afternoons.) But my option expired when I was unable to come up with the $5000. needed to renew it. The very next day the Hakim brothers optioned the book, assigned the surrealistic director Luis Bunuel to it, and made it with Catherine. Several years later Robert Hakim met me at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool and told me that he and his brother had made $8 million with 'my movie.' I also became friendly with Michel Legrand and, when visiting him at his mill house outside of Paris, he told me that he had optioned a book called "Blind Love" and wanted to direct it as a musical film. I set it up at MGM, hired the brilliant Bob Merrill (lyricist for "Funny Girl" and screenwriter for my W.C. Fields movie, to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, the friends of MIchel who were supposed to write the music never did so and the picture floundered. Michel went on to win three Oscars for his music in "The Way We Were" and others.
Deneuve at the end of the film, the sophisticated woman.
Back to 'Cherbourg': A lyricist named Norman Gimbel put English lyrics to the theme music from the film and it resulted in the very successful song, "I Will Wait For You." Tony Bennett's classic performance of the theme song was added to a version of the soundtrack CD. Demy's next film was a continuation of this story in a way; The Young Girls of Rocheforte. George Chakiris starred in it with Deneuve, music by Legrand and director Demy all participating. (Gene Kelly also has a small role in it. Tragically, Deneuve's older sister, Francoise Dorleac - who also appeared in it - died in a car crash.)
I met Jacques Demy when he came to Hollywood and tried to help him in some films there, while also becoming friends with his wife, the famed director Agnes Varda. After he died in 1990, she supervised the first restoration of the faded color print, and now it has been digitally-restored. The print at the Nuart is pristine and brings out the full brightness of the magnificent colors of the original and enhancds Demy's vision of the fantastically-colorful Cherbourg.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg elevates the everyday drama of life into a soaring dramatic opera full of bittersweet passion and playful charm. Personally I think it is the most rapturous movie I have ever seen, an unparalled picture of young love. Cynical and somewhat sophisticated that I may be, it still overwhelms me with feeling and passion. I suggest that you make a quick trip to the Nuart before it closes at the end of this week to experience it again or for the first time. It could change your life for the better as it did mine.
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