The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & The Young Girls of Rochefort
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Apr 14, 2017
It’s not hard to understand the timing behind Criterion releasing Blu-ray upgrades of Jacques Demy’s rainbow-colored musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. A double feature of the two films makes it obvious that Damien Chazelle was watching them on repeat while constructing his runaway, almost-Oscar-sweeping-hit, La La Land, which borrows liberally from both films in terms of plot, style and production design.
Directed back to back by Demy in 1964 and 1967 and featuring music by composer Michel Legrand, the two films are mirror-image musicals that simultaneously harken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and embrace the then-current vitality of the French New Wave. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the better known of the pair, starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as a pair of young, working-class lovers who are torn apart when the former becomes pregnant and the latter is drafted to fight in the Algerian War. Composed as a jazzy recitative – meaning the film consists entirely of sung dialogue rather than the more traditional form of dialogue giving way to musical numbers – Cherbourg is best remembered for its astonishing production design and cinematography, made all the more stunning by the new 2K digital restoration undertaken by Criterion. Everyone’s outfits match the wallpaper of the room they’re standing in to an almost hypnotic effect. Deneuve and Castelnuovo are both luminous and charming, but the film separates them before their relationship can seem like much more than youthful infatuation which makes their subsequent malaise less than compelling, regardless of how jazzy it is. Viewers used a more traditional style of musical may also find the recitative format a bit alienating, trading the standard buildup and release of traditional movie musicals for a style that borders on the operatic.
Where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is moody and bittersweet, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a joyous and funny throwback to classic American musicals, going so far as to include the legendary Gene Kelly in a supporting role. Reteaming with Deneuve, Demy casts her alongside her real-life half-sister Francoise Dorleac as musically inclined twins looking to escape their quaint hometown for the bright lights of Paris. Only slightly less aggressive with its dazzling color-coordination, Rochefort is clearly set in the same world as Cherbourg, and uses most of the same tools to achieve an opposing goal. Anchored by the bottomless charms of his two leading ladies, Demy keeps his camera light and steady as he glides through musical performances, dance numbers and an increasingly silly comedy of errors to create a crowd pleaser in the truest sense of the phrase.
As always, Criterion has packed both editions of the film with complementary extras, including a pair of hour long documentaries about both films, one of which is directed by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda, one of his contemporaries in the French New Wave. Also included are archival French television interviews with Deneuve, Demy and Legrand, as well as an informative interview with film scholar Rodney Hill, who discusses the relationship between Demy, his films and their relation to the French New Wave movement.
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