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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

–“Are you happy?”

–“I’m not unhappy.”

If you haven’t seen Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and this review piques your interest, I’ve got a little favour to ask of you:   Hold off on making any critical judgements until you’ve been watching for at least fifteen minutes or so.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical, but it definitely isn’t Singing in the Rain or Moulin Rouge.  Actually, I don’t think there’s another musical like it in existence: no dancing, no duets, no chorus, and no spoken lines of dialogue.  Lines like, “Check the ignition on the Mercedes,” “I should have changed shoes,” and “Move your ass, you’re in the way” are all delivered with the same musical conviction as Judy Garland singing about the Yellowbrick Road.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was an experiment.  The fact that it didn’t create a whole new genre of movie musicals doesn’t mean it wasn’t a brilliant success on its own terms.  But it sure takes a bit of getting used to.  That’s why I was asking for that little favour.  There might be a temptation to watch for five minutes and scream, “Jacques, are you mad!?  There’s a reason no one ever did this before!”  Hey, that was my first reaction.  Rubbing it in, Demy has one of his characters sing: “All that singing gives me a pain—I like the movies better.”

In France, Demy’s film is one of the great classics.  Yea, I know, they worship Jerry Lewis too.  This time it’s more than just a national quirk.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was nominated for 5 Academy Awards in 1964, and won the Palme d’Or for best film at Cannes.  Once you accept the every-line’s-a-lyric premise, the critical recognition doesn’t seem misplaced.  With its extraordinary use of colour and the superb musical score by Michel Legrand, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg develops a bittersweet love story in the best tradition of Jacques Brel and Jacques Prévert.

Those of us who weren’t around to see the original film almost missed out on the chance to appreciate it.  Demy used an Eastmancolor process that’s turned out to be very unstable.  Eastmancolor films tend to suffer from a loss of strength in blues and greens over time, leaving the films looking pink and washed out. By the 1980s, no true print of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was known to exist. Presciently, Jacques Demy had archived multiple monochromatic negatives when he produced the original film.  Shortly before his death in 1990 he began work on creating a new print.  His widow, Agnès Varda, herself one of France’s finest filmmakers, completed the restoration in 1992.  Michel Legrand also remixed the soundtrack in Dolby stereo.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Even if The Umbrellas of Cherbourg weren’t such a bold experiment, it would still have a 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve in her first starring role.  Deneuve’s debut could have been Demon Hot-Rods of Lyon and it still would have made my must-see list.  In Cherbourg she is Geneviève, a teenager whose widowed mother owns an umbrella store that gives the film its name.  Business is not good.  Behind her mother’s back, Geneviève has started going out with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a 20-year-old mechanic at a local garage who lives with his invalid godmother and her caretaker.  The courtship is accelerated when Guy gets his draft papers for Algeria (the film’s story begins in November, 1957).  Mom clues in to what’s going on and is not happy—she has no illusions about love.

The plot thickens with the arrival of a wealthy young bachelor, Roland (Marc Michel).  From the moment Roland arrives on the scene, Demy’s film veers radically away from the simple-minded paean to love less-gifted hands might have made of it.  Like the songs and poems of Brel and Prévert, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg manages to be sublimely romantic while keeping its eyes wide open.  Demy’s choice to have every line of dialogue sung creates an ironic distance that the storyline both reinforces and denies.  At one moment, lines of poetry flow together in rhyme à la Cyrano de Bergerac; at the next it’s back to an operatic, “Will that be regular gas or premium?”  Lines such as “I can’t live without you!” and “I will love you till the end of my life” work because they’re come across as both heartfelt and unreal.

The film’s editing contributes to the surreality.  A couple of strange, abrupt cuts catch the viewer off guard, reminders of illusion. Amazing shots like the opening one of the film, looking straight down at the street as the rain falls away from the camera and the umbrellas bloom like sudden flowers (or the one where Guy and Geneviève literally float down a sidewalk, and the one later at the train station where the camera pulls away with the train instead of following it), are spellbinding at the same time they remind us that we’re in a kind of fairy tale encroached upon by the world outside. Imagine Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire as Vietnam vets.

Michel Legrand’s music reinforces the viewer’s subtle disorientations.  Lush, jazzy, swelling, falling.  Manipulative.  Gorgeous.

Color is a stunning part of this almost fairy tale.  It takes the place of “Once upon a time….”  The inhabitants of Demy’s Cherbourg exist in world of primary colours and backgrounds that are half Las Vegas, half Martha Stewart.  Sometimes the colours wrap around the characters like warm luminous blankets, while at others times the actors seem like flesh and blood silhouettes on a Technicolor scrim.  Cinematic Post-Impressionism.  Fruits in a bowl command one’s attention as strongly as faces.  Demy and his set designer actually repainted whole sections of Cherbourg to match the vision they had for the film.  There is a fantastic attention to detail.  When Guy and Genevieve sit together on their last evening before Guy leaves for the army, the drinks on their table are colour-coordinated with everything else in the scene.  The attention to detail extends to subtleties of plotting, things easily missed on a first viewing.

This film begins in rain and ends in snow.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is not a fairy tale about living happily ever after.  It is a fairy tale about not living unhappily ever after.  And that, it turns out, is not a fairy tale at all.

(I’d also like to recommend Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent essay on Jacques Demy’s films, “Songs in the Key of Everyday Life,” on the web at


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

For me, the magic of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg comes from the way in which Jacques Demy managed to give an epic/archetypal feel to a simple love story between a garage mechanic and a salesgirl in a small coastal city.  He did this through a combination of the preternatural beauty of the young Catherine Deneuve, the paradoxical way the sung dialogue draws us deeper into characters’ lives rather than alienating us from them, the pastel color fantasy of sets and costumes, occasional moments of magic realism (such as the scene where Guy, accompanied by Geneviève, walks his bike down a street and yet appears to float on air rather than walk), and the final, bittersweet recognition that human beings, while able find accommodations with life that serve to make them not unhappy, find true happiness just out of reach.  Simple as this love story may appear to be, it’s as superb as Cyrano de Bergerac’s sacrifice of his own love on the altar of Roxane and Christiane’s more earthly passion.  Neither Geneviève nor Guy could have found more honest loves than Roland’s and Madeleine’s—and they know this to be true—but they are doomed to forever wonder if what they’ve given up is something beyond reckoning or price.

Random Notes:

  • None of the actors in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg actually sing for the finished film. All the singing was recorded separately by others, and a painstaking effort was required of the actors to synch their lip movements to the recorded tracks.  When performing before the camera, however, the actors did actually sing—very badly, it appears—to create the most convincing effect possible.
  • Following in the French New Wave tradition, Demy shot all of his films on location, never in a studio. With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, that didn’t stop him from altering the look of locations through painting, new wallpaper, etc.
  • Composer Michel Legrand, who died in 2019, had an extraordinarily successful career that embraced jazz, classical, popular music, and early French rock ‘ n roll. He had three Oscar wins, and another half dozen nominations.  The Internet Movie Data Base lists 215 credits as a composer for film & television.  He recorded over 100 albums.
  • Catherine Deneuve’s career has been as remarkable as Legrand’s. She has 141 acting credits on Imdb as of January 2002 and is still making one or two films a year.  She’s taken home two César Awards in France, with an additional dozen nominations.
  • Jacques Demy died in 1990, at age 59, from HIV/AIDS. His last film was Three Seats for the 26th, made in 1988.  Demy’s partner, filmmaker Agnès Varda, has released three documentary films on Demy’s life & art:  Jacquot de Nantes (1991), Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (1993), and L’Univers de Jacques Demy (1995).
  • If you have access to the Criterion DVD for the film, or to the Criterion Channel, to bonus features are first-rate: a one-hour French documentary on Cherbourg from 2008, an interview with film scholar Rodney Hill that puts Cherbourg & Demy in the context of the French New Wave and more traditional French cinema, a 1964 television interview with Jacques Demy & Michel Legrand, and audio interviews with Demy & Deneuve recorded in London in 1991.

Available on YouTube?   No, but currently available at at

Also available for purchase or rental through iTunes & YouTube, and for streaming at the Criterion Channel

Movie Information

Genre: Romance | Musical
Director: Jacques Demy
Actors: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey
Year: 1964
Original Review: August 2002


24 Great Performances of 2021


Not just an excellent review of some of the best acting of 2021, but also a great introduction to some of the year’s best films.  If you haven’t yet visited the website, this is a good place to start. While you’re here, check out an episode or two of Scout Tafoya’s The Unloved.


Vertigo and Lolita: The Supreme Love Fictions of the 20th Century?


From the Bright Lights Film Journal, a long-form essay by Doug Neiss that calls into question readings of Vertigo and Lolita as “immortal love stories.”  The main focus is on Vertigo, and Neiss is an excellent guide to Hitchcock’s twists & turns.  From the essay:


In any case, Vertigo does not convince me that John actually loves Judy’s Madeleine or that Judy actually loves John. I can believe that she comes to love her power over John Ferguson, her ability to play him, lead him around, hook him into the drama she is playing. She does it as Madeleine Elster and cannot resist trying the greater feat of working the same magic as herself, without Elster’s guiding hand. Of course, John does not give her the chance….

John’s love for Judy’s Madeleine is also self-love. I can believe that John believes himself in love with the beautiful young actress playing up to him, and him alone, literally an audience of one. He sees himself as the great lover fated to save this otherwise doomed descendant of the legendary Carlotta Valdes. (D. H. Lawrence has some wonderful flourishes on this kind of male fantasy in “The Theatre” chapter of his travel book Twilight in Italy.) Here is a chance both to redeem himself and to earn the love of a beautiful otherworldly woman. This is what the “hardheaded Scot” (as Elster cunningly calls him) has been saving himself for his whole life.




What Netflix’s involvement in Nigeria’s massive film industry really means

IROKOTV | Nollywood at Your Fingetips


Alessandro Jedlowsky introduces readers to the ins and outs of Nollywood, a major African film industry that hasn’t yet had the global impact of its Hollywood and Bollywood contemporaries.  From the article:

Until now, foreign investments in Nollywood have mostly translated into “more of the same” content. Working conditions for crews and actors have remained the same — basically, low budgets and quick shooting schedules.

In fact, big investors seem to be mainly interested in Nollywood’s already established popularity with African audiences. Making Nollywood more palatable for international audiences doesn’t seem to feature.

This means that in most cases they are not ready to invest bigger money in production budgets. Rather, they invest in better structuring distribution networks to extract as much profit as possible from the Nigerian industry.

And most African audiences are indeed happy with how Nollywood is, even if they tend to complain regularly about the low quality and the repetition of film contents and aesthetics. The fact that Nollywood as it is keeps on attracting audiences makes investors reluctant to change the scale of their production budgets.

The second link above is to the major Nollywood streaming service available in North America.


A one-hour documentary from 2007, Welcome to Nollywood, is available for purchase or rent through iTunes and YouTube.

Films Worth Talking About:

Cerny Petre (Peter and Pavla), Cyrano and d’Artagnan, A Hard Day’s Night, Goldfinger, Olympiad, What’s New Pussycat? Alskande Par (Loving Couples), My Fair Lady, Dr. Strangelove, The Servant, Diary of a Chambermaid, La Peau douce (The Soft Skin), Marnie, A Shot in the Dark, The Masque of the Red Death, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Red Desert, King & Country, Mary Poppins, Father Goose, A Fistful of Dollars, Woman of the Dunes, That Man From Rio, Greed in the Sun, [Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte], Children of the Damned, Two Stage Sisters, Lilith, Kwaidan

The Bigger Picture

Films:  Lola (1961), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Donkey Skin (1970), The World of Jacques Demy (1995), La La Land (2016), All That Heaven Allows (1955)


Music:  Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand, L’Intégrale—The Complete Edition (11 CDs)



The Word on the Street

All in all, a real bon-bon of a movie.   [TheLittleSongbird]


A feast for the senses.   [Hitchcoc]


Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery is the film’s highlight, although Danielle Licari provided the singing (and with an all-singing musical, that makes Licari every bit as big a star as Deneuve). This film certainly helped launch Licari’s career, as she did not release her first album until the following year with “La Géographie en Chansons”.   [gavin6942]


It was nominated the Oscar for Best Song for “I Will Wait for You”, Best Original Music for Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy, Best Music Adaptation or Treatment for Michel Legrand, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen for Demy and Best Foreign Language Film, and it was nominated the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film.   [jboothmillard]


NB:The lead female part was intended for a real singer ,Isabelle Aubret. Because of a car crash, she was not able to play it.   [dbdumonteil]


First, there are the first notes of Michel Legrand’s penetrative score (the “I Will Wait For You” theme) that started to resonate during the opening credits. I knew I heard that tune before and then it hit me, “Jurassic Bark”, poor Seymour waiting for Fry… “I Will Wait For You”, one of the saddest melodies ever, that was meant to be used for the saddest TV moment ever. Now, knowing that it came from Michel Legrand and that it would be the defining theme of the film made me realize that in terms of emotions, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” ‘meant business’, and within the right context and served by the right lyrics, the score reached unsuspected levels of poignancy….

The visual delights also lay on the depiction of Cherbourg which, depending on the season, the weather or the general mood, can be either cheerful or depressing. One day, the two lovers dance a mambo behind the red walls of a nightclub, it’s red, passionate, lively, and the day after, they’re in a depressing and neutrally grey train station saying goodbye to each other. Even a cute and cozy little umbrella shop can become a cold and depressing washing-machines’ stores…. 

So, what I loved about “The Umbrellas of Cherboug” is how misleading it actually is, these jazzy musical interludes, the playful way characters recite their lines by singing, you wouldn’t believe this film would be so dark and so realistically bold, dealing with pregnancy, financial problems, not much war traumas than the disillusion of homecoming soldiers and of course, broken hearts. It’s like a strawberry-flavor candy with a lemon bittersweet taste in the end.   [ElMaruecan82]


…more tantalizing is to note how a third film, Le Bonheur, annotates this one and the last scene, made by the wife of Demy, Agnes Varda, obviously inspired by the work of her husband and released a year later. It’s not a scholarly connection I’m after; here we have work by soulmates for whom love and romance were things they shared in life, not tropes. 
In Bonheur we see a husband and wife who could be the boy and girl of this one had everything worked out, whose married life is as blissful as the romance here hoped to materialize. Both films are about happiness and betrayal. Even more pertinently; both are about distance, empty space, in which internal narrative begins to form.   [chaos-rampant]


Without the music this film would be all nonsensical drivel. But the music gives it a spirit of beauty that not only is kept sustained all the way but which constantly is heightened in gripping authenticity and sincerity. The music gives these most ordinary humdrum characters a soul of eternal life. Neither Jacques Demy nor Michel Legrand would never again make anything like it, although their next film, “The Girls of Rochefort”, was technically more advanced and architecturally more brilliantly composed, but in this film the music also adds poetry and the infinite beauty of infinite sadness. If you listen to only the music without the film, it will give you more than the entire film. Although only recitatives, the tunes will stick, and as they are repeated throughout the film like real “leitmotifs”, they will make the music create a deeper and truer impression of the feelings and passions involved here than the actual film. It is a masterpiece unique of its kind, there is no other film like it, and no one ever even tried to make something similar.    [clanciai]


I was a teenager in France when this was made in the sixties. The backdrops of the white Esso gas station, the red and yellow passenger train cars, the bouffant hair styles on the girls, their eyes heavily made up with mascara and black eyeliner, the ubiquitous bicycles and the little French “cigarette roller” cars all brought back vivid memories of youth as did the musical score. 
A question: what ever happened to the “other” girl, Ellen Farner who played Madeleine? To be honest I found her more attractive than Deneuve who of course went on to become a great star and an acclaimed international beauty.
Farner was never heard from again.   [DeeNine-2]


It was a rare privilege to be present at a film house screening of the restored print of this timeless musical romance. Seldom do I find myself actually holding my breath at such beauty, but that’s what happened. The restoration was astonishing, and the years slipped away and the audience was there in 1964.   [harry-76]