The 60th anniversary of ‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’ is at Cannes

It has been a big week for the beloved 1964 musical, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the 1964 Palme d’Or and went on to international acclaim and five Oscar nominations, plus served as one of the key inspirations for Damien Chazelle’s Oscar winning La La Land.

The film got a special 60th Anniversary screening today at Cannes Classics of the exquisitely new restoration of the movie at the Agnes Varda Theatre which is named after the late director and is also wife of late Cherbourg writer/director Jacques Demy. This week has also seen the World Premieres of two new documentaries related to the film here. On Saturday night at the Bunuel Theatre in the Palais came the premiere of Once Upon A Time: Michel Legrand , an extensive two hour documentary on the late great composer of Cherbourg and so much more.

Then last night, also at the Bunuel, was the unveiling of a new documenary, Jacques Demy, Le Rose et le Noir (The Pink And The Black), which chronicles his career from his first film to his last, and contains remarkable interviews with Demy over the years as well as terrific behind the scenes footage from all his films, including of course The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, one of the true treasures of French cinema and one of the most unusual films ever made since every single line was sung rather than spoken.

Jacques Demy and Michel Le Grand on The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Criterion Collection

Catherine Deneuve, only 20 when she made the film, played umbrella shop clerk Genevieve, and Nino Castelnuovo (who died in 2021 at age 84) played garage mechanic Guy. They were a young couple in love who were separated when Guy had to leave for two years to join the army. She remained behind but was pregnant with his child. Things sadly were never the same when he returns. It is very interesting to note that the storyline still has resonance 60 years later as one of the Cannes Film Festival premieres tonight, Gilles Lelouche’s Beating Hearts has a similar, although edgier, Romeo And Juliet –style plotline with two young people in love, separated, then brought back together in a bittersweet reunion. It received a 15 minute standing ovation 60 years apart in Cannes from another tragedy-tinged love story revolving around young people.

Pete Hammond

The Cannes Film Festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux appeared to introduce The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’s packed screening (or as the French like to say “complete”) along with Demy’s daughter Rosalie Varda, who also was on stage last night for the Demy docu premiere. She and her brother Mathieu Demy have been responsible for continuing on the legacy of their father, especially since Agnes Varda passed away in 2019. She had been a ferocious keeper of the Demy flame, even directing her own documentary Jacquot Of Nantes in 1991, followed by The Young Girls Turn 25 in 1993, a documentary celebrating 1968’s Demy classic musical, The Young Girls Of Rochefort which featured again Catherine Deneuve, her sister Francoise Dorleac and Hollywood musical stars Gene Kelly and George Chakiris. It is a musical film, like The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg that is also an inspiration for Chazelle’s La La Land.

I have seen Cherbourg many times and it never gets old, a striking and colorful simple love story set to music. There is nothing quite like it. It was not only nominated for the 1964 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (it lost to Italy’s Yesterday Today & Tomorrow), but also the next year as well when it qualified for other categories and was up for 4 Oscars including Best Song “I Will Wait For You”, Best Adapted Musical Score, Best Original Music Score, and Best Original Screenplay, still the only screenplay that was all sung ever to get an Academy Award nomination in a writing category.

Hopefully the Legrand and Demy documentaries will find U.S. distribution. They are both quite fine, particularly Once Upon A Time: Michel Legrand (aka Il Etait Une Fois Michel Legrand). It covers his remarkable career of course including three Oscar wins in three different music categories: “The Windmills Of Your Mind” for Best Song from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair; 1971’s Summer Of ’42 for Best Original Score; and 1983’s Yentl in the Song Score category.

The best part of it revolves around what would turn out to be the final concert ever for Le Grand at the Philharmonic in 2018. He had taken ill and there was some question whether he would even be able to appear. He was weak but director David Hertzog Dessites chronicles every moment both on and off stage, even with questions if Le Grand would/could return after the intermission. He did and ended up conducting his stunning score for The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. It is absolutely stirring and a remarkable first film for Dessites who was a self-professed fan of Le Grand and approached him in Cannes where he was doing a concert during the film festival in 2017. It is a shame Le Grand, who died in 2019, did not live to see this wonderful film and tribute. After Saturday’s sceening was over someone stood up and sang acapella versions of “The Summer Knows” and led the audience in “I Will Wait For You”. Only in Cannes.

Michel Le Grand

For me this unexpected journey into the lives of Michel Le Grand and Jacques Demy, and the return 60 years later to The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg was like a dream. Or as Juliette Binoche said upon winning an Oscar in 1998, “like a French dream”.

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