When I was just shy of adolescence, my parents bought a new Cadillac that came with a sampler of music on an eight-track tape, and I often asked to hear it during trips. It was the essence of mid-'70s easy listening: 101 Strings, Ferrante and Teicher, Barry Manilow. I could sing along with the Manilow, and I thought that's why I wanted to hear the tape over and over.
But I never forgot the instrumentals, even though I couldn't have told you the names of the songs, let alone their sources. Decades later, I saw Jacques Demy's 1964 romance The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time, and the years melted away as I heard those melodies again. Michel Legrand's wall-to-wall music, in soaring strings more often than swinging horns, was the siren song of adulthood to my 12-year-old self, evoking something romantic but tragic, something older and wiser than the green, brash Top 40 hits in my brother's collection.
Cherbourg is a magnificent cinematic curiosity, a French Technicolor extravaganza with all the dialogue sung. ("I don't like operamovies are better," a mechanic opines facetiously in the film's opening scene.) Geneviève (a young Catherine Deneuve) loves Guy, but loses him for two years to the war in Algeria. A few months after his departure, she discovers that she's pregnant, and her mother presses her to accept the proposal of a wealthy diamond merchant.
The plot reads like melodrama, and it's hard to imagine singing making it any more realistic. Yet Demy's empathetic direction and remarkably naturalistic dialogue, together with Legrand's gift for intimate duets, create the French equivalent of a Sondheim song score. The singing is never recitative, yet the most prosaic lines are integrated smoothly with the most significant. Demy's lyrics are concrete, specific, even provincial in the mouths of characters who don't understand the gaps their love can't bridge. Legrand's music sends those words soaring and plunging through the full range of emotion, but never floats free from the boundaries of plot, character and circumstance, revealing transcendent depth in what is really only a fragment of story.
And the music acts like a truth serum for the speaker; the characters don't seem to be able to lie when they're singing. Or maybe it's that the songs are like X-ray glasses for the audience; we can see through the characters' words, clumsy and halting as they sometimes are, to the sincerity and beauty of the soul underneath. Part of the film's magical aura is that it has no villains. In melody, in rising and falling tones, sympathy emerges for each singer. Instead of malicious intent, their conflicts acquire the depth of tragic fate.
Three years later, Demy and Legrand teamed up again for The Young Girls of Rochefort, a more conventional musical with no sung dialogue but plenty of songs and dancing. In fact, there are three dance numbers in the film before a half-dozen lines of dialogue are spoken.
Gene Kelly, who appears as a composer, inspires Demy's joyous riff on the American cinematic musicalall dance, all the time, down to the barely-glimpsed background actors who twirl their way across the screen instead of walking. Rochefort doesn't attempt the tragedy and tears of Cherbourg, but it touches the same emotions more lightly in some of the stories. The rest of the film is simply about having a whale of a timeeven name-checking Legrand in one song, to illustrate its devil-may-care attitude.
Maybe you have to be of a certain agepast the adolescent concern for separating hipsters from posersto appreciate the beyond-cool exuberance of the Demy-Legrand '60s films. Grown-ups, I learned from them, sometimes wear their hearts on their sleeves. Whether it ends in safety or sacrifice, the result can be achingly beautiful. A brand-new 35 mm print of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg opens Friday at the Belcourt.
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