The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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This glorious Palme d’Or-winning French musical (Les Parapluis de Cherbourg) directly influenced the Hollywood blockbuster La La Land. Directed by Jacques Demy it starred Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon and Marc Michel.

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First released in 1964, Jacques Demy’s captivating, colourful third film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, created a new genre amongst musical feature films – the entire dialogue was sung.

It’s a charming tale of first love – a ravishing mix of music, romance and fertile cinematic invention that made a star of Catherine Deneuve, who was just 20 when she was cast as the lead.

She stars as Genevieve, a teenager who works in an umbrella shop with her mother, Madame Emery. She has fallen in love with Guy, a handsome local car mechanic, but her mother disapproves of the relationship. She wants her daughter to wait until she’s a little older and find a man with better prospects, especially as her shop is struggling financially.

There is an added obstacle to Genevieve and Guy’s romance. The war in Algeria means that Guy has to complete national service and the pair decide to spend the night together before he has to board the train that will carry him away for two years.

They promise to wait for each other, swearing undying love, and commit to marrying on his return. But can their love survive such a long separation?

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuouvo star as Genevieve and Guy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the middle film in Demy’s loose trilogy of romances that share some of the same cast members and characters.

It came after Lola (1961) and was followed by Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) which also starred Catherine Deneuve, along with her sister Francoise Dorléac.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort
, out now on DVD

Tragically, Francoise died in a car accident shortly before the films release.

Michel Legrand, the legendary film and TV music composer and jazz pianist, who passed away in January 2019, was a collaborator with Jacques Demy and other filmmakers of the French New Wave.

“Jacques and I had to work really hard to get this project of the ground,” remembers Legrand on his official website. “The producers showed us the door saying: ‘You’re a couple of nice young guys, but do you really think that people will spend an hour-and-a-half listening to characters singing life’s little platitudes!’ They were afraid to finance a film that substituted singing for dialogue, and that had a realist slant, much the same as everyday life. After a year of uncertaintly, things began moving again. In other words, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a work that was made against everybody’s better judgement!”

After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a hit around the world.

It was nominated for five Oscars, three of which were for the music.

The lovers theme song, Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi, was nominated for Best Song and has been covered in English (I Will Wait for You) by numerous household names including Nana Mouskouri, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Cher, Andy Williams and Liza Minelli.

Among jazz musicians who have recorded versions are Oscar Peterson, Donald Byrd and Louis Armstrong.

Fans of the film include the writer Kurt Vonnegut, and it’s influence can be seen in the work of Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel).

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