THE DVD SHELF: The Essential Musicals of Jacques Demy and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"

This week's column explores a collection of films by Jacques Demy and the classics "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Big Chill."

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The Criterion Collection, which periodically brings us what they term "essential" collections, now brings us The Essential Jacques Demy. Demy (1931-90), who began his career as a member of the French New Wave, enjoyed considerable acclaim in the 1960s for three innovative and unusual musicals which are quite unlike any that have come along before or since. The first of these, "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (also known as "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), is on my own personal list of essential movie musicals, so it is a joy to be able to watch it enhanced for Blu-ray.

I was also happy to get to watch the two later Demy/Michel Legrand musicals, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" and "P'eau Dane." (Demy's first feature, the nonmusical "Lola," is also of interest as it interlocks with one of the main characters of "Umbrellas" and takes us to a third French city, Demy's hometown of Nantes.) I won't say that I would categorize all six films in the set as "essential," but I will certainly revisit the three equally fascinating musicals.

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"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) is a treasure indeed. Demy and Legrand — who had provided the background scores for Demy's two prior features — determined to make a sung-through movie musical of a type that didn't quite exist. (Demy was inspired by the Jets walking the streets of Hell's Kitchen singing lyrics in the 1961 Best Musical Oscar winner, "West Side Story.") Setting it in the Normandy port town of Cherbourg — an often rainy Cherbourg, as suggested by the title — they came up with a supremely emotional, supremely musical story of undying love (as suggested by the title song, known in English as "I Will Wait for You"). But a love that is doomed to die; one of the sentiments that comes up a couple of times is that tragically disappointed lovers say they will die, but they rarely do. Demy builds his film on a windswept, rainswept canvas. The opening titles feature an overhead shot of portside cobblestones in the rain, with people passing in random groupings — most of them obscured by colorful umbrella tops — while the love theme is introduced. The song was almost immediately an international hit, so for many viewers the sentiments of the lyric-free instrumental were already known. The action begins with a scene in a garage, accompanied by a blast of jazz. (Legrand tells us, in a 2008 documentary included as a bonus feature, that they were concerned about losing the audience if they started the film with the actors singing lines to polite music. Thus, they came up with a jazzy — and noisy — opening to immediately capture the attention.)

The plot is simple, and somewhat reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy. Teen-aged Geneviève (Catherine Denueve) falls in love with garage mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). When he is called to sea — drafted to fight in the French-Algerian War — the pair vow undying love and mark their final night by consummating their non-marriage. He is gone, she is pregnant, so she pragmatically decides to marry the rich but unexciting jeweler Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Guy returns a year later, wounded, to find that Geneviève and child have moved away. After hitting the skids, he is redeemed by the love of the loyal Madeleine (Ellen Farner).

When Geneviève unknowingly pulls into Guy's service station six years after they parted, the couple have an uncomfortable discussion; when she wants to introduce him to their daughter, in the car, he abruptly sends her away. The film ends with Guy playing with his own son among the gas pumps, in the snow. (The children were Demy's adopted daughter and Legrand's son. Legrand's sister Christiane was involved as well, providing the singing voice of Geneviève's mother, Madame Emery.)

What makes "Umbrellas" so strong is not just the story and the performances; the music, the direction and the design combine to make it extraordinary and extraordinarily memorable. The love theme is overly familiar, yes; or at least it was for a quarter century or so. But Legrand provided a clutch of memorable themes/songs with strong melodies infused by jazz, set to sung dialogue by Demy. The success of the film resulted in a long and successful Hollywood career for Legrand, who was already known in American as a popular jazz pianist.

Visually, the film is stunning. Working with production designer Bernard Evein and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau, Demy creates a bright, mid-'60s crayon box. The survivors of the filming tell us again and again, in the documentary, how they designed wallpapers and interiors to complement the vibrant costumes. And what wildly bright pictures they create. (The film is described as being "like a singing Matisse.") As expected, the colors — and everything — look sparklingly vibrant on Blu-ray.

The principals sing, and move, effortlessly; effortlessly in that they were mouthing words to pre-existing tracks. Legrand and Demy's widow Agnès Varda (who supervised much of the restoration of the six movies, and a filmmaker in her own right) tell us how they made the non-singing actors sing out loud — as opposed to simply speaking — so that they would appear to be producing the musical sounds. (As a result, they recall, the filming of these scenes sounded pretty awful.) But it looks just right; it all works perfectly, and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" remains a one-of-a-kind treasure.

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The other two Demy/Legrand musicals were new to me. Next came the 1967 "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" ("The Young Girls of Rochefort"). If "Umbrellas" was a shadowed story of love lost with a hint of West Side Story, "Young Girls" was bright and sunny and seemingly patterned on the M-G-M version of On the Town. Magnifying the On the Town connection was the presence of Gene Kelly himself, 15 years past his "Singin' in the Rain" prime, looking quite odd as a romantic lead at 55 and dancing up a storm. But then, everyone in Demy's "Rochefort" is dancing up a storm. Anyone need only stroll down the street humming a tune, and the entire populace — in bright garb — starts doing jazz steps. The whole thing is a fantasy of music, color and movement. The film begins with a truck caravan rolling onto the Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge. (This is an odd contraption — built in 1898, still in operation today — on which the vehicles roll onto a platform which is lifted high above the river and across.) While they transport, the boys and girls spill out of the trucks in colored costumes and do a full scale jazz number loaded with spins and twirls. The film is like a sunny West Side Story, in which everyone in the background dances along. The West Side link is, presumably, not accidental; the two boys driving the truck — carnies in town to set up the weekend fair — are actual Jets. George Chakiris, who created Tony in the London production and won his own Oscar as Bernardo in the film, is the dark one; Grover Dale, from the original Broadway cast (and choreographer of Seesaw and The Magic Show), is the other. They wear what look like white go-go boots throughout, with George in a bright orange shirt and Grover in pale blue. In one scene while someone else is singing in the café, everyone crowds the shot. Grover's shirt is the same color as the counter and the chairs, with the truck — with the same blue — seen outside the window. And lots of pink, too. As the beatniks would say, crazy, man!

The plot is flimsy beyond reckoning, but that is part of the charm of the film. The twin demoiselles are music/dance teachers hoping for a career in Paris. (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac were not twins but sisters, one year apart. The latter was killed in a car crash shortly after the film was released, at the age of 25.) Their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) runs a very stylish frites shop in the middle of the town square; she also has a young son in grade school. (She had the boy with another man, but she fled from him before the baby was born because his name was Simon Dame and she didn't want to be "Madame Dame." Need I go on?) Simon befriends the music teacher — Yvonne never let him meet her daughters, somehow — and sets her up with his school pal Gene Kelly, who is world famous but has never found his soul mate. It goes on and on, with Demy seemingly making things up as he goes along; there's even a serial killer in the mix.

The colors in the palette — from the same design team as "Umbrellas" — are even wilder this time, reflecting the mod look of the late '60s. Legrand's music is, fittingly, more swinging than in Cherbourg. The vocals seem influenced by the Swingle Singers, a full-voiced French pop group which won Emmys in 1963, 1964 and 1965. At least three Swingles — including Legrand's sister, the lead soprano of the group — sing in the film, and Demy prominently places a Swingle Singer record cover in the film.

The choreography comes from one Norman Maen, an Irish choreographer who stopped by Broadway in 1961 as the principal dancer in Donnybrook! The style here is a mixture of Robbins with Fosse; not late-period Fosse with everyone slinking around in black — Pippin did not arrive until 1972 — but the mid-period Fosse of Sweet Charity, specifically the "Brass Band" number. Everyone here, with one exception, is dubbed — even Gene Kelly. The exception is the radiant Darrieux, who in 1970 came to Broadway to replace Katharine Hepburn in Coco; the show immediately died, through no fault of Darrieux. She also made a good impression two years later in Ambassador, an ill-assembled Henry James adaptation which lasted a week at the Lunt.

Altogether, "Young Girls" is a blast — albeit one of those films where you can't quite believe what you are seeing with all those kids leaping and twirling in the streets.

* The third Demy/Legrand musical is the 1970 "Peau D'ane" ("Donkey Skin"). This column has gone on long enough that we needn't say much except that this is a fairy tale out of Charles Perrault, the 17th-century writer who came up with Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and the like. Placing the story in those fairy-book times, the film explodes with color: servants in the blue kingdom have blue skin, those in the red kingdom are all red. There's even a miserable old crone who spits frogs. Yes, frogs, who scurry away.

Here, Deneuve is the prettiest princess in the kingdom. Her father the King — the veteran Jean Marais, not coincidentally from Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" — determines that in order to accede to his wife's dying wish, he must marry his daughter. (Ah, the French!) Deneuve escapes by donning the donkey skin of the title and finally marries a handsome prince from a neighboring realm. Everyone ends up happy, including the king. (The film is filled with anachronisms, topped by the grandest deus ex machina you could contrive in 1970.) The whole thing is a riot of color and fantasy. Back before the days of cable and video tapes, "Donkey Skin" was the French equivalent of "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Miracle on 34th Street," reappearing on TV every Christmas for enchanted audiences. And not without reason.

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The Essential Jacques Demy includes three other films, "Lola" (1961), "Bay of Angels" (1963) and "Une Chambre en Ville" (1982). Diehard fans of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" will find "Lola" especially fascinating. The rich jeweler Roland Cassard, when courting Geneviève, sings about how in another time he was in love with a girl who didn't love him, her name was Lola. Lola shows Cassard — played by the same actor, Marc Michel — some years earlier, hopelessly in love with a dance hall girl (Anouk Aimee). Cassard's song in Cherbourg — which became something of a standard under the English title "Watch What Happens" — is originally used as theme music in the earlier film. A look at "Lola" will also explain the enigmatic footage of a concourse of shops used in "Umbrellas," while Cassard is singing his song; it is the Passage Pommeraye, the 1843 two-tiered arcade in Nantes. In "Umbrellas," it is shown desolate and empty, in color; in the black-and-white "Lola," it serves as backdrop for the climactic scene where Lola breaks up with Cassard.

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Criterion has also given us two baby boomer classics. "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) shows The Beatles in their first flush of international fame, chased up and down the streets by teenagers. Director Richard Lester's film is frisky and frenetic, in a good way; the boys, here, are in their early twenties and altogether charming. Even Ringo is funny. "The Big Chill" (1983) follows seven college pals who reunite for the funeral of their ringleader, a suicide. This is not exactly a next-generation "The Way We Were," but it has something of the same effect. It also a fascinating time capsule of young actors of that long ago time: Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams and more. Both films earn my recommendation, but this column is already overlong. (Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)