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Jacques Demy was trained as a violinist but now spends his time composing movies as themes-and-variations. The repetition of visual patterns in his brilliant Bay of the Angels struck many viewers as monotonous. Shot in black and white, Bay had a stark, realistic aspect that obscured the director's intentions, leading viewers to anticipate a narrative realism that Demy had little interest in presenting.
Demy is interested primarily in what he calls "poetic neorealism,"--a genre whose paradoxical name he has coined, but which could include some of the great directors such as Vigo, Dovjenko, Carne, as well as many of the contemporary Italian inheritors of the postwar tradition of neorealism, such as Antonioni, early Fellini, Pasolini.
In black and white, Demy's genre seems to produce stories with discontinuous, rather fugal, structures. Blazing with color, Umbrellas of Cherbourg has no such effect: the realism is gone, and with it the crisp texture. But the musical structure remains, ballad-like now and thoroughly impressionistic.
All dialogue is snug in aria or recited in this simple, banal story of young love interrupted by army draft, of a pregnancy left behind, and of a heroine's face-saving marriage to a wealthy older man. Mechanics sing "Did you check the carburetor?" An old lady sings "My varicose veins are much better, thanks."
And Umbrellas is filmed in the most violent, least muted colors you're apt to see in a movie of the 60's. One aria scene between young lovers Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo takes place in an alley walled in pink, chartreuse, and flaming orange. By cutting various camera angles, Demy gets background colors to underscore whatever mood happens to be flooding the sound-track in song.
It is interesting to see a director experiment this way with making his images the servants of his music, but I don't think it quite works here. Not as film, though perhaps as music. Demy said audiences would react as to a hot bath: a moment of alarm at the operatic style, then relaxation. Though my alarm diminished steadily, I didn't find ninety minutes long enough for a thorough adjustment.
Demy has technical problems with his images, problems I found very disturbing despite the apparently secondary importance of image to Demy's conception of this film. To use color the way he wants to, he needed lots of light, and had to shoot with his camera wide open. This gave him serious focus problems, and sometimes Umbrellas gets as fuzzy as a home movie.
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