Thursday, March 04, 2010

Chromatic March reflection: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Cherbourg, France: a girl and a boy find one another on a street corner and find ways to spend their nights together... excuses to make use of those empty spaces between obligations. He is a mechanic, she helps her mother in an umbrella shop. It’s a city of pastels and primaries, highlights and micropalettes and (as critics love to point out) the colors of a candy store. This is the world that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg celebrates.

Umbrellas seems like a frivolous little cinematic experience from the get-go, a springtime daydream where even the winter world seems to be blossoming. It’s a musical, but in an older tradition (I know the suggestion that this has anything in common with Broadway will turn people off). There are no spontaneous musical numbers that can be distilled into tracks on a CD... rather, the whole film is a recitation, each line sung in tune with a ubiquitous background melody that permeates this vision of France. It's continuous and operratic; the colors and the song are both indicators of the heightened reality where most of this film is at home.

The film is flippantly aware of its stylistic tendencies. Umbrellas is alive with minor references to itself, from a discussion among mechanics comparing movies to musicals, to a passer-by at Mrs Emery's store who asks where to buy paints (a true commodity in such a painted world). Mrs. Emery herself offers a number of tongue-in-cheek remarks, calling her bright pink shop "dreary" when speaking to Mr. Cassard, and telling her ailing daughter that "people only die of love in movies."

This is a side-note, but it's one that can't go without remark. How often do we see this sort of quiet, passing humor in movies now? Humor without obvious cues, observations almost below remark that add flavor to the drama of a love story? Sometimes, I think film hasn't matured enough to be subtle... but movies like Umbrellas remind me that we've not only gotten to that point... we've gone past it and regressed. Anyway, back to talking about the colors.

It’s actually hard to pin down the nature of the palette in Umbrellas, because its colors are so spontaneous and expressive that they don’t quite coalesce into a mood. Demy bathes us in pastels and then transitions into strong primary colors; he brashly combines hot pink and orange, and he fills whole frames with single colors, only to suddenly introduce contrasts and highlights. I tried to take meaningful notes on his use of colors for a while, but I completely failed, because they’re so unpredictable. I kept noticing that Demy would create and recreate palettes on-screen, clothing a character in red or yellow, placing them in a light blue room, and then following them into a purple room or a white landscape, so the colors shift from calm to anxious before our eyes.

Demy has created a Cherbourg that pops and splashes and amuses, a world defined by young love. Genevieve and Guy are the centerpieces for the film, and they set both the visual and the emotional tone. Umbrellas is brimming not only with color, but with love and affection; this sensation may be unfamiliar to the contemporary movie watcher, who is inundated with betrayal, violence, frustration, and voyeuristic melodrama. In Cherbourg, we are occasionally spectators to hard times, but never to bad people; this universe is not Manichean, but rather curiously optimistic, substituting hope and acceptance for moralism. The characters who seem like they could develop into adversaries... Mrs. Emery the manipulative mother, Mr Cassard the dubious diamond merchant... turn out to be compassionate and profoundly, encouragingly human.

Given its hopeful and candy-coated facade, Umbrellas turns out to present a surprisingly frank portrait of the world. It is not an empty exercise in style... rather, it's about both idealism and emotional clarity, and it's about growing out of the innocence that makes the film so appealing in the first place. When Genevieve's life is dominated by her love for Guy, or when his mind is preoccupied with her memory, the colors never slow down; however, as the characters' world changes, so does the vibrancy of their setting. The first scenes that are genuinely "realistic" in color choices are the scenes at the train station, when Guy is confronting his responsibility to go off to the service. When he returns to Cherbourg after his absence, looking for his love, the color doesn't entirely return with him; it still lingers in his old home, and it seems to persist in certain houses of amusement, but it's largely washed from the world in favor of a dim, stony impassivity.

From Guy's return until the end of Umbrellas, the palette never quite returns to its original vividness. It's a conflicted, almost unbearable change for us, the audience, who invested so strongly in that colorful, escapist world... part of us wants to scream and regress, curl into a fetal position, and return to that fantasy; part of us rejects the great weight of inevitability that Act III represents. However, part of us knows that this is the way things have to be -- less painted, less colorful, and beautiful in their sheer, mundane simplicity. And Umbrellas offers us a vantage point from whence we can still see the compassion and hope that comes with acceptance.

The film is unexpectedly moving and thoughtful, committed to both romance and wisdom, ready to be expressive, but not absurd. The drama is stylistic, a splash across the surface, but at its core, the film is about characters whose relationships with the world go through phases, and it's about finding the unique way of celebrating each of them along the way.

Palette: "Ebullient"


(by the way, somebody else did this kind of thing at Apartment Therapy)

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