Thursday, August 19, 2010

Films # 60 & 61: French Musicals! (Aug 18)

The Young Girls of Rochefort
1967, 120 min.
Directed by Jacques Demy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
1964, 91 min.
Directed by Jacques Demy

Summer is in the final stretch, and special events for the remainder of The Summer Film Series were few in number. There was to be one on Tuesday, August 17th, and it was one I was looking forward to. before the first film there was to be a performance by interpretive dance group Little Stolen Moments. It would've gone a little something like this...

...but with umbrellas.

Instead, the theatre was selected to view the pilot of some new television series by ABC. It's called "My Generation" (effing horrible title) and looks like a modern version of "Thirtysomething" or "Quarterlife" or whatever pre mid-life crisis series that gets made every ten years or so. This, despite the marketing itself as something "you've never seen before." Right. I hate to dignify it with publicity, but I want to make clear that this is something I already loathe.

So how awful and contrived does that look? Ugh. I give it about eight weeks before America is annoyed and it's canceled. Wait? In 2009, how long did "Hank" last? Or "Eastwick?"

Grr. But I digress.
Wednesday arrived with a chance of rain. I brought my umbrella, just in case. You know how it goes. The one time you forget your umbrella it pours down, right? I was taking no chances.

As I entered and moved to take my seat upstairs, I noticed some wayward glances. There were even a couple of smiles in the lobby. Wondering what could possibly have been attracting attention, I started to subtly take an inventory. Was my hair messed up? No more than usual. Was my fly open? Nope. Was my shoe untied? Negative. Finally it hit me. Oh! The umbrella! No, ladies and gents, I wasn't being thematic. I swear.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a great and energetic musical, full of serendipity and love. Its the story of a weekend in the French seaport and takes place mostly near the town square. A fair is set for Sunday, and the coming event has an effect on a few of its citizens. The story centers two non-identical two sisters, Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) who, like most girls who grow up in a small community want to move on to bigger and better things. Their mother owns a cafe near the town square, and they help their mother in whatever method they can from day to day. Ah, but these two femmes are looking for true love. Delphine is about to break off a relationship with a pretentious snob, and both aim to move to Paris the following week, in pursuit of amour and joie de vivre.

During this weekend, those whose lives intersect with the duo are slowly revealed to have destinies together. Either they share a past unwittingly, or they are to share a future. The audience begins to see who should end up with whom, and part of the fun is seeing when and how the stars will align during these few days. The rest of the fun, of course, is provided by the musical numbers.

The rhythm and music in Rochefort are irresistible, and have that late 1960s Quincy Jones kind of vibe. Everything is so shiny, colorful and sweet. The movie's like a big French bag of Skittles. I found myself smiling and beaming, taking in the subtitled lyrics onscreen and the beautiful fluidity of the French language. Better yet, when a character would break the fourth wall and sing to the audience, the connection felt all the warmer. You just didn't want to sit there watching the film. You wanted to sing and dance, even glide with them.

Visuals in the film are so vivid that it feels like a beautiful dream. Colors were bright, but I couldn't help but think to myself, "if this had been filmed in Technicolor and had been restored like The Red Shoes, my eyes would melt!" In classic Hollywood musical form, the secondary characters and the passing crowds would engage in the choreography.

Gene Kelly even shows up, and although not exactly an "American in Paris" this time, his character is en route to the City of Lights. His detour through Rochefort during this magical weekend impacts not only the lives of these characters, but the audience's enjoyment as well. I could practically hear the crowd around me swoon as his part in this love story played out. But come on. It's Gene Kelly dancing and singing (although later overdubbed) in French! What's not to love?

As the film reached its climax the near misses graduated from amusing and whimsical to near excruciating. I wanted to scream at the screen. "What? They missed crossing paths again? Oh no! Turn around! True love is right behind you!!" It's a testament to the charm of this movie that you don't want it to end. You want the paths to cross and then follow their lives for more than the weekend depicted. What more can I say? The Young Girls of Rochefort is funny, sweet, lovely and endearing. Afterwards, all I could do was sit back and glow with delight. Ah... C'est l'amour.

But oh, what a different kind of romanticism was to be found in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This was a title I was, in fact, familiar with. Years ago, when I worked at a small town video and book store, there was a customer who came in and rented Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Every. Single. Week. This went on for months, and I always wondered why he revisited this film so frequently. I simply assumed he was a rabid Catherine Deneuve fan with an unhealthy obsession. Was that the case, or is the movie really that good?

So tonight the mystery would be finally put to rest. I was going to find out what the big deal was with this Jacques Remy film. But after Rochefort, my expectations were high. Was this also to be another beautiful and sunny musical? One that would make me fall in love with Catherine Deneuve also?

For the most part, sure. But there is one big no. This is NOT a sunny musical. The film taps into the pangs of youthful love and indecision, creating a work of musical genius. In fact, musical isn't really the right word here. Opera would be more apt.

Umbrellas is not what one would call a "sing songy" kind of movie. It doesn't have the structure of a typical musical, where there are scenes of dialogue occasionally punctuated with song and/or dance. No. Here, every line of dialogue throughout the movie is in fact, sung. As mentioned before, it's operatic in nearly every sense. Everything is elevated a notch: the colors, the passion, the emotion, the drama, the tragedy. The melodies are often subtle, but there are major themes and songs that I identified from subsequent other films or shows.

The film is broken into three parts (not quite acts): departure, absence and return. The story is about young 17-year old Geneviève (Deneuve) who lives with her mother and works at her umbrella store. She is madly in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a noble 20-year old auto mechanic. Her mother disapproves of her daughter seeing anyone, but particularly one who she feels can't properly provide a "better life." Seeing one another in secret, they finally begin to take some steps towards a life together when he is drafted in to the French army. Devastated at the prospect of two years apart, they sleep together before he ships off...

Parts two and three are told over the following few years, and are about the consequences of life decisions and of anchoring one's life to a far away lover. As it often does, life presents a shuffle of the cards that is unforeseen and demanding. When Guy finally returns, he finds many things have changed. Absence does drive many people towards a variety of actions, after all. It's a hard lesson that both young lovers are forced to learn.

As I watched the years pass in the lives of these two, I couldn't help but feel their tragic circumstance could (and probably has) happened to countless people in the real world. Not specifically their story, mind you, but the matter of choice. Logic versus heart is never an easy decision, and rarely benefits from compromise. Life cannot be placed on pause, and even the best-laid plans are often modified or thrown away completely in acquiescence. Like Splendor in the Grass, the depiction of young love is recognizable, as is the despair. Do we submit to these trials? Stand our ground? Or try and grow from them?

The film is powerful and poetic. And yes, it really is that good. While similar thematically to The Young Girls of Rochefort, it could not have been a more different tale. When the final bittersweet scene gave way to the end credits, the melancholy lingered in the theatre even as we all accepted that what we just watched was beautiful as it was tragic. Afterwards, all I could do was sit back and exhale the heartbroken feeling in my chest. Sigh... C'est l'amour.

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