Thursday, December 22, 2011

To The Ends Of The Earth

The world keeps turning. On the day of the recent New Beverly double bill of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and CHUNGKING EXPRESS it rained, which couldn’t have been more fitting for several reasons. Because of the title of that first movie, yes, which seemed to provide just the right mood in the air but also because at some point that afternoon I remembered that the occasion marked the second anniversary of another series of days when it rained in Los Angeles, when just a few weeks shy of Christmas I was laid off from my job at an unnamed entertainment news TV show and sent off into the wilderness. Someone who I was getting to know around that time helped me out more than anyone did that weekend, to remind me of what else I had in my life, to let me know that it ultimately didn’t matter. I’ve always been grateful to her for that, maybe more than she’s ever known. Now, two years later, I’m employed again but she’s elsewhere in the world and I guess I miss her terribly. And here I was, going to see Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG which I suppose is one of my favorite movies, one about love and wistfulness and memory and trying to let go of certain memories so you can move on. Demy’s films are about some of those possibilities of what can happen when you walk down the street, of who else might still be around the corner in life. It’s that feeling in the air of knowing that chance you take when you go up to speak to someone for the very first time.

I’ve seen UMBRELLAS numerous times by now, starting from a re-release way back in ’96 at the now recently closed Laemmle Sunset 5 and while I always love it this viewing didn’t significantly alter what the movie has become for me. But as some of the best works of art do I think it’s gaining as the years mercilessly press on, revealing more of what it says about love and happiness—or what those things can mean to us, anyway—and how downright unforgiving the passage of time can really be when it comes to what we perceive as our relationships. The basic story is about as simple as you can get yet the overall effect it gives off is as complicated as real emotions often are. The occasion of the screening at the New Beverly was part of The Wright Stuff III, director Edgar Wright’s latest series at the theater but unlike his first two festivals which were made up of some of his favorites, this time he chose to focus on films that he hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. He said that he even owned several of the titles being screened on DVD but had been holding off until he had a chance to see them on 35mm in a theater and while he solicited many people for possible titles, this was one film which was solely his idea. The undeniable delirium of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, with colors designed to pop off the screen probably shouldn’t be experienced any other way, certainly not contained by a mere TV screen.

In the small seaport town of Cherbourg, France, seventeen year-old Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and twenty year-old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are madly in love even though Geneviève’s mother (Anne Vernon) who runs the tiny shop known as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is opposed to it because of he lack of status of auto mechanic Guy who lives with his elderly aunt Elise (Mireille Perey) and her caretaker Madeleine (Ellen Farmer), who clearly has feelings for him. Soon enough it doesn’t matter anyway with Guy’s draft notice coming in. He departs, but not before he and Geneviève have spent the night together. With Guy off at war and Geneviève facing the reality of her pregnancy, alone except for the endless pressure coming from her mother she suddenly becomes open to the interest of wealthy jewel salesman Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) who has his own designs on her.

It’s not a complicated story and isn’t meant to be (in discussing it I may be a little liberal with spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet please beware). I also wonder how many people at the New Beverly that evening, there to see a film being introduced by Edgar Wright, even knew that this film was not only a musical but actually contains no spoken dialogue at all, with every word in fact sung essentially in the style of an operetta in a cacophony of lyricism which refuses to ever stop—wisely, the movie even pokes some fun at this idea in the very first scene. If you showed somebody only the first third of UMBRELLAS you could understand how they would think this is pure drippy sentiment with candy-coated colors and expressive beats of the two lovers essentially floating down the sidewalk with nothing on their minds but the simplicity, the perfection of their love which they seem to feel operates outside of the world and whatever anyone else has ever experienced. The ecstasy is undeniable as well as unapologetic. The beauty of Catherine Deneuve can’t be ignored.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is really the only one of Jacques Demy’s films which has been known at all in the annals of pop culture due to its musical uniqueness, two songs (“Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait For You”) that have been covered numerous times by various vocalists and of course the luminous Catherine Deneuve. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of Demy’s films—in some ways I respond more on a personal level to LOLA and the widescreen sprawl of his Deneuve musical THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT fills me with a sort of joy that is almost impossible for me to describe, messy as I know some of it is. But THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is the one where everything seems to crystallize, where the intensely stylized universe of Demy seems absolutely right within a narrative that he stays focused on like none of his other films ever do--he receives sole credit for the script but due to the nature of it Michel Legrand seems almost as responsible and credit should also go to cinematographer Jean Rabier who previously photographed the black & white BAY OF ANGELS for Demy. This film was originally photographed on a type of Eastman stock that proved problematic later on which necessitated an extensive restoration but regardless, the colors seep into your subconscious like something out of a dream in a way that feels more otherworldly than simple Technicolor which makes the effect it has that much more unique, displaying the bright colors of youth before it turns into the more realistic acceptance of what follows. Every hair is in place, every piece of clothing seems to go just right with the room a particular character is in, every gesture seems carefully thought out and every moment feels perfectly arranged, even down to the matching cuts of the embracing lovers at a key moment in their story. And as things begin to turn when they’re apart it’s almost a shock. “Absence is a funny thing” as Geneviève sings about Guy, wondering why he’s fading away from her, not even able to fully understand the transitory nature of what she’s feeling (“People only die of love in the movies,” Geneviève’s mother once says to comment on her daughter’s heartbreak). All she ever seemed to know about Guy was that she loved him totally and absolutely which is all she ever seemed to ever say to him. So what else is there when that feeling goes away?

The war separates Geneviève and Guy, life separates them, the passage of time separates them with that Splendor in the Grass of it all. Whose fault is it? Who makes the right choices? Was Guy even able to write to her more than he did? Was Geneviève simply panicking, succumbing to pressure? Has a wedding ever seemed as purely tragic as it does here? Her mother comes off as overbearing but she also isn’t entirely wrong in being protective of her daughter’s naiveté and yet it’s a key to the complexity of the film that she openly regrets parts of her past while still sending Geneviève down the same path. Roland Cassard isn’t exactly a bad guy either but part of that may be colored for me from the first time the character ever appeared. As famous as THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG might be it’s not widely known that the film is essentially a follow-up to Demy’s LOLA, the non-musical black & white film made in 1959 in which Marc Michel first appeared as the character—in that film he also becomes acquainted with a widow who Geneviève’s mother seems undeniably reminiscent of, another indication of the recurring ideas and images that move through his filmic world. Here we meet Cassard several years later, obviously having prospered in whatever shady diamond trade he fell into after the end of that film and he seems to have moved on from the heartbreak of Lola but he’s never forgotten her. Even the recurring musical theme that is a part of much of his dialogue returns from the earlier film which was also scored by Michel Legrand.

Some places, like the film’s Wikipedia page, refer to UMBRELLAS as being the middle part of a trilogy also including LOLA and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, although this film and ROCHEFORT actually share no characters. To make it even more complicated, the title character of LOLA actually returns herself much later on in 1969’s MODEL SHOP (that last film even has a reference in dialogue to the lead character in BAY OF ANGELS—the ongoing universe of Demy’s films where characters influence films they don’t even appear in continues to fascinate me). Leaving aside the idea of recurring characters, I’ve sometimes thought that CHERBOURG and ROCHEFORT could be looked at as the first two parts of a trilogy that was never completed. The first film is about loss, the second film is about recovery—even the youthful characters which include Deneuve are older than the young lovers here, a little more used to heartbreak—and I still can’t help but imagine a never-made third musical collaboration between Demy and Legrand, preferably featuring Catherine Deneuve somewhere in the cast, that would have been some sort of final step in that process of life. The characters of CHERBOURG never recurred through Demy’s other films but when in MODEL SHOP Lola looks through a photo album and speaks of her past it still frustrates me that she never comments on the photos of Cassard that are there. His story ends here and there’s a certain subtext to his motivation in courting Geneviève as if it’s nothing more than, “I didn’t get Anouk Aimee? Fine, I’ll take Catherine Deneuve!” He was once a poor schmuck who couldn’t get a girl. Now he essentially helps himself to the most beautiful girl imaginable.

One bonus to Edgar Wright’s week of programming at the New Beverly was bringing in special guests to help introduce the films he had never seen. Before this screening we got MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner who during his talk remembered some of the countless films he saw at that theater decades earlier and they also mentioned the dialogue reference to the film we were about to see on MAD MEN a few years back. Correctly deeming it “pure cinema”, Weiner also focused some of his talk on how the theme of modernization becomes more prevalent as the film goes on, which for me is as much of an indication of the passage of time as anything, how the world irrevocably changes for the two leads. The gleaming white service station where the film concludes is certainly a switch from the musty old garage where it begins and the umbrella shop itself is seen being converted into an appliance store complete with front loading washing machines. I wasn’t sure how the New Beverly audience would react and I think my own defensiveness of this meant that I wasn’t able to get as swept up in it as I sometimes do at home. And after a small amount of initial laughter from the New Beverly crowd at the beginning, once the movie poked fun at its own self in the early scene where the mechanics talk about how they don’t like the opera because there’s too much singing it felt like they were with it and the applause that rose up at the end felt genuine, not just out of politeness. Even the friend I had met there who really had no idea what she was about to see liked it very much as well, which made me happy. It was also a little surprising how much the film and the world of Wong Kar-wai as viewed in CHUNGKING EXPRESS which followed seemed to go together and the next day on Twitter he called it the perfect double bill and, after all, the sort of uplift provided by these films doesn’t happen every day. “I’m not unhappy,” says one character at a crucial point near the end as she cries, unable to express exactly what she’s feeling after being asked multiple times through the film if she is happy or sad, which probably says as much about the worldview of Demy’s films as anything. Sometimes I start crying at the opening of this damn film. That didn’t happen that night. I think I was just too nervous someone was going to see me.

It’s somewhat unusual to discuss the performances in UMBRELLAS partly due to how everyone in the cast is dubbed, not doing their own singing, but also because the focus obviously goes to one person and with Catherine Deneuve playing one of the heads here, almost impossible to talk about anyone else. She’s so beautiful, so ethereal, so heartbreaking. Matthew Weiner commented on how her face “is the story” which is true but of course it’s only half of the film. Nino Castelnuovo isn’t quite that equal, but he’s no slouch either and he particularly plays things with just the right intensity to sell things later on when the character is drifting to a bad place. Anne Vernon keeps things from being too overbearing while Marc Michel seems like he’s deliberately withholding some of the past uncertainty which remains buried down within Roland Cassard. As for the other woman, Ellen Farner doesn’t have very many screen credits but she couldn’t be more beguiling at certain moments as Madeleine. the way she brushes her hair back from her head when sitting dressed in orange in front of that orange outdoor café is especially fetching and it’s to the film’s credit—it’s essential, actually—that it never feels like Guy is settling by ending up with her.

Jacques Demy’s best films stay with me like few others do, remaining in my thoughts as I drive around this city, haunted by a few of those women who aren’t around anymore, forever thinking of certain places like the cutaways to a few locations Geneviève and Guy walked through at the height of their reverie. Some of Michel Legrand’s music here continues to haunt me as well, not just the lyrical passages but even some of the transitions which always seem to completely speak of the concept of fate, like the slow, calliope style of the main theme when Guy returns in the rain, a carnival that is on the verge of finally dying down, how the turning wheels are moving towards what is pre-destined. It wasn’t until about three or four viewings of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG until I realized one of the keys to its depth actually occurs in the opening scene when Guy is asked to stay a little late at the mechanic’s to look at a car the vehicle in question actually belongs to Roland Cassard who appears in the shot unannounced and at that point not yet introduced. It’s as if everything is fated right from that moment: somehow, even if no one realizes it, Roland Cassard is going to prevent Geneviève and Guy from being together. The film is aware of this, but it can’t do anything more than simply observe, reminding me of that Kubrick quote which states the world isn’t hostile but indifferent. The film is brutal that way, maybe never more than when Guy declines Geneviève’s offer in the final scene to meet the child that is his. Not just for the obvious reasons but how the way the moment plays he not only declines to meet her but in shaking his head declines to continue the musical phrasing begun in her question. Instead the beat just lingers there, uncompleted and with that any bond that was ever there between them is forever broken. He has his wife and son, she has her daughter, Mercedes and husband who is nowhere to be seen. Make of this what you will. The complicated, unresolved ecstasy of the final shot is not even allowed the luxury of a THE END title card as if to remind us that their lives are going to go on after the movie ends, forever apart. All that appears, in the U.S. version anyway, is a notice at the bottom of the screen, crediting those responsible for the English subtitles. It appears prior to the fade out and even before the final bars reach their crescendo so the way it intrudes feels as invasive as anything in how it seems to coldly state, “If you wanted a different ending, too bad. That’s all there is.” Lovers drift apart. People never see each other again. Life goes on. The world keeps turning.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Wow. Amazing write-up of a powerhouse double feature at the good ol' New Beverly... wish I had been there! For the record, seeing "Umbrellas" as a middle-aged man with two kids - as opposed to when I saw it the first time on a date in my 20s - I have to admit, Roland Cassard became the hero of the film to me. He's suave as hell, he strides in, cuts through all the nonsense, and allows Guy and Genevieve to get on with their happy, fulfilled adult lives of marriage and kids. I mean, when Guy's future wife first appears onscreen, 10 minutes or so into the film, her music cue shoots an arrow into my heart. You just KNOW Guy is supposed to be with her, if he could only get past being dazzled by Catherine Deneuve. And who can blame him? As an audience, WE can hardly get over being dazzled by her! Anyway, it's one of those rare movies that hits every emotional button for me with a straight-up bull's eye. Glad to read your thoughts on it!