2017 Film Essays

Political and Social Conventions in Jacques Demy’s ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’


By 1964, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut had redefined cinematic language and captivated audiences with their feature debuts, transporting a new wave of subversive filmmaking into the mainstream. In the wake of their success, Jacques Demy, a filmmaker from the seacoast town of Nantes, had finally struck his golden goose with the innovative operetta The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and his newfound recognition granted him the freedom to direct the equally successful spiritual sequel The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Demy continued to release films in the subsequent years, however they were panned by international audiences, causing his name to fall into obscurity. Passionately, his wife and fellow La Nouvelle Vague filmmaker, Agnès Varda, posthumously restored his important cinematic contributions, reinstituting them into the public consciousness.

Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg initially establishes itself as a conventional narrative about two possessed lovers, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), who are separated by the Algerian War. However, like all La Nouvelle Vague masterworks, Demy eclipses the traditional formal and compositional elements of Hollywood musicals to create a wayward melody of social and political malaise. While the target audience may be charmed by the film’s visual vibrancy and recitative sung dialogue on first viewing, subsequent viewings reveal its complexities that are deeply entrenched in the socio-political climate of the late 50s/early 60s.

Demy intentionally employs the Algerian War as the backdrop for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Geneviève and Guy’s romance begins in “November 1957,” a significant month in United Nations history, as they denounced the increased attacks and torture employed against military personnel and civilians. Although the conflict itself is rarely mentioned, it imposes upon the characters’ lives and influences their behaviour within the narrative. The war imperializes the couple’s hyper-idealized dreams of getting married and conceiving a child, thrusting them into a reality of heartache and suffering. Guy’s return from the front lines represents how war metamorphizes a man. The boyish wonder has vanished from his eyes and been altered by bitter resentment as he recognizes “there is [was] no danger,” and that he was fighting in an ineffective war. Once retired, Guy engages in empty affairs with prostitutes — an impotent attempt to recapture his strayed love. The war’s influence is also symbolized through Geneviève, as she is conscripted by her mother to abandon Guy and accept her fate, deluding herself into believing that perhaps their relationship wouldn’t have lasted. While other films from the French New Wave have spoken of the Algerian War (most notably Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7), few have addressed it in such a profound manner, depicting the process of transformation at the hands of the conflict.

In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, class structure is constructed through Geneviève’s unduly protective mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), and her first love, Guy. Emery represents a Machiavellian character who aspires rapid social ascension for her daughter. Her financial strife leads her to the suave businessman Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), whom she glorifies as the model man that can offer her daughter physical and emotional security. Once Guy gets drafted, Emery initiates a relationship with Cassard, considering it to be the only alternative for Geneviève to assimilate and avoid being ostracized by society for having premarital sex and falling pregnant. Despite her ineptitude, Emery sincerely loves her daughter and wants to safeguard a pleasant future. In contrast, Guy represents an unhurried social climb. Once he completes his call of duty and tends to his Aunt Élise, he can pursue an entrepreneurial career as a mechanic and move up in social class. When Guy reunites with Geneviève at his gas station during the Epilogue, the societal division is aggrandized. Geneviève has escalated to the upper echelon of society, adorned in a fur coat and pearl earrings, whereas Guy remains stagnant in the middle class. Through the figures of Madame Emery and Guy, Demy exposes the endemic influence of social hierarchy in post-war France and its impact on marriage.

Like popular musicals of the past and present, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg appropriates gay culture. There are discreet, homosexual gestures throughout the film, such as a sailor waiting for his client under a lamp post. This image has become archetypal in Queer Cinema and was replicated 18 years later in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle. Much like The Wizard of Oz, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg features no explicitly homosexual characters, yet the film communicates to the universal queer experience, serving as a testament to Demy’s bisexuality. Guy and Geneviève’s forbidden love echoes the adversity of same sex couples, as the characters endure shame and are compelled to hide their meetings from their guardians. These hyper-realistic circumstances are surely understood by modern viewers that have also been compelled by societal norms to keep facets of their life hidden. Demy, as the only French New Wave member who identified as bisexual (as far as I’m aware), explores homosexuality in a subdued manner that would pass the censor board.

Fifty-three years after initial release, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues to be a formally and contextually innovative French New Wave production; a film that has influenced contemporary directors such as Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle and Joachim Trier.

Frankie Kanatas is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia. His previous writings have been featured at Black Circle Film, and he can be contacted at frankiekana000@gmail.com.