If you have a natural aversion to people breaking out into song in films it is safe to say that you should give this one a miss. Jacques Demy here has fully realised his vision of creating a ‘film in song’, it is less musical theatre more jazz backed modern opera. Add on to the top of this a large helping of deeply felt French romance and you have a film that remains a true curio of world cinema. It is not really a standard musical in that there is no spoken word in the entire piece, instead Demy uses normal speech and conversation as the lyrics of the songs, creating an interesting balance of fantasy and realism. It is a vibrant and heartfelt experiment in musical filmmaking which for the most part pays off very well.
For the story we have Genevieve and Guy, the former being played by a captivating young Catherine Deneuve and the later by the solemnly charismatic Nino Castelnuovo. The couple is freshly embroiled in a secret relationship and the chemistry between the two is immediately palpable. However all is not well, when they sing that they will love each other forever and that nothing will ever part them the alarm bells start ringing. These chimes soon crescendo as life take a hold of the romance, firstly Genevieve’s mother is unhappy with the two dating and then suddenly Guy is conscribed to join the French army in the fight in Algiers. We then watch as the two people struggle to find a place for their love in a world which cannot allow the two to be together. This is a fairly well-worn romantic tale of lovers kept apart despite their wishes, however Demy and his choice to heighten the mood through the operatic nature of the songs he has his characters sing breathes life into an otherwise fairly unremarkable plot.
The songs in the film are less songs than conversations with melody and rhythm, people talk in full sentences and interact normally just in a continuous melody. The effect of seeing a film tell its story in song but without a normal verse chorus structure gives the piece a real flowingly fast pace which may seem difficult to get on board with at first but soon you become enraptured into the beat of the film. Demy understands the humour and jollity that musicals can bring and yet gives his characters a fairly bleak hand to play in the film. At one point we may have upbeat jaunts underscoring a mothers nagging of her daughter to find the right man, but then the film shifts into its more sombre laments to the nature of lost or misplaced love. At one point Deneuve (or the overdub of Deneuve) sings ‘Why is absence so hard to bear’ in the films signature melody and we feel the emotion of the sentiment. We have watched and heard the joy that the young lovers had when they were together but as life continues we are carried along of the wave of regrets that the two people share. Much like other musicals the emotions in this are very earnest and close to the skin but unlike most there comes with it a sadness which feels very true and less forced than musicals can tend to be.
Demy does not just let the songs speak for the film however, this is 60s French filmmaking after all and we can see his cinephilia shining through in the vibrancy of his frame. Yes we don’t have the huge musical numbers of Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly or the sheer scale of Busby Berkley but Demy doesn’t need these when he has composition and colour. The Technicolor glow of every environment in Cherbourg is a sight to behold, he doesn’t need to use huge sound stages with dance routines to perform his art, and instead he makes real life magical and otherworldly through retina burning pinks, greens and blues. He shows a painters eye for using colour in composition with clear reference being taken from the great Hollywood classics, especially Gene Kelly’s oeuvre.
To say the film is a perfect example of musical filmmaking is not correct. At points the structure of the songs works against it with sentences having to be rushed or crowbarred into the beat of the background music. This is not necessarily a negative however and for me just added to the charm of the piece. It is not an overly happy film despite the vibrancy of every other aspect from the cinematography to the acting to the songs, the plot remains drenched in ennui. As with many of the films in and around the French New Wave both joy and sadness are to be found but you must always break through or reckon with an auteur vision of whatever subject is to be found. For me Demy here created an accessibly vivid tale of young love which dodges the pretensions of the day whilst still feeling artistically daring.
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