Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dipping My Toes in French New Wave: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Breathless


It has been an interesting week since my first entry, with lots of people answering my call and recommending lots of New Wave flicks. Super happy about it, guys, but the unfortunate thing is that I won't be able to watch everything you recommend by the end of the month. I only have eight spots, and half of them have been filled already! However, I'll continue on this education in the many years of life I still hopefully have to live. Anyway, this week's pickings were the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.


I consider myself to be quite the fan of musicals. Sure, 80% of them are really cheesy, but if the cheese is melted you right, I can't think of anything more fun. Then there's the other side to musicals: you know, Les Misberables, The Phantom of the Opera etc. These films bring sadness to songs, making heartache mean something so different. And you know what? I love it just as much as I love to see people dancing around in buses in the middle of the day. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is unlike anything I've seen before, though. This film does not have a spoken word of dialogue: everything is sung. I was very confused as to whether this was a New Wave film, since it didn't really look like any of the other ones, but then I realised that it was quite an experiment. It was very hard to get into the fact that no-one was going to just talk to each other, but once I came around, this more was a brilliant experience. As brilliant as it was, though, it was absolutely devastating.

The basic story is that young Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve, who is like my new favourite actress), who lives with her mother at an umbrella shop, secretly falls in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), which her mother disapproves of. Guy is sent off to war, and when he leaves Geneviève discovers that she is pregnant. While he is gone, the wealthy Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) falls in love with her, and offers to marry her and bring the child up as his own. The film is absolutely heart-breaking. And it is simple heart-break, too, which is made even more heart-breaking by the way song and music is weaved into the plot. In fact, just thinking about it now makes my heart hurt a little. However, while the film is doused in sadness, it is extremely beautiful to look at. The 60's were such a colourful era, and director Jacques Demy uses colour to it's full extent. The art direction is beautifully bright and vibrant - for example, the house that Geneviève and her mother live in is filled with pastel pinks and purples, instead of boring creams like most houses. My eyes had a love affair with this movie. Which makes it the ultimate paradox: even though this movie made me hopelessly sad, I am helplessly in love with it.


A more typical New Wave film was Breathless. In amidst all of the recommendations I received in the past week, a whole lot of people had been warning me that Jean-Luc Godard's stuff wasn't the easiest to get into. So naturally, I was a little weary going into Breathless, but I came out absolutely loving it. As I've said time and time again, I love seeing conversations play out on screen. In this film, there's lots of that happening, but adding to the beauty of people communicating is the French language. I never realised how much I actually wanted to continue my 8 year old dream to learn French fluently until I watched this film. To add to the beautiful talking, there was such a beautiful feel to go with it. Black-and-white is another favourite thing of mine - it has this weird power to make everything just look better - and it is used wonderfully in this film. Everyone just walks and talks with that stylish air about them, which I absolutely loved. Even without the use of colour, I fell in love with this movie just as much as I fell in love with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Everything about this seems so real, mainly because Godard chose to make this film like a documentary. There wasn't a lot of technical trickery going on (in fact, many scenes were just shot with a hand-held camera and nothing else), which drew me into the world that car thief Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) inhabited. The editing, also, was quite interesting to see. There were random jump cuts (possibly used to just cut out unimportant material), so things didn't really flow, per se. Everything is so spontaneous, which is what I loved most about it. The characters, who are really only the deluded, Humphrey Bogart wannabe Michel and the aspiring young journalism student Patricia, are also really interesting to watch, particularly because of the chemistry between Belmondo and Seberg. They bring life to the already lively dialogue, and beauty to the already beautiful atmosphere. Breathless was extremely interesting to watch and absorb, and like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it is likely to factor high into my favourite films of all time list.

What do you think of these films? Are you a fan of Jean-Luc Godard? A fan of musicals?

33 comments:

  1. You picked two good ones. I'm still surprised at how much I enjoyed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Once I got past just how inane most of the lyrics are, I found a lot to enjoy. You might also like The Young Girls of Rochefort, although Cherbourg is better.

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    1. I might watch The Young Girls of Rochefort - I definitely want to check out more Jacques Demy.

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  2. I haven't seen Breathless (the Godard I have seen are Vivre sa vie, a Woman is a Woman and Contempt), but I adore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Deneuve is wonderful. The other Demy film I've seen also stars Deneuve, and it's called Donkey Skin, or Peau D'ane (I think I might have mentioned it to you before).
    Have fun with more new wave films! :D

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    1. I'm watching Vivre sa Vie this weekend! I can't wait. I'm glad that you adored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, too.

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  3. I haven't seen Cherbourg, but Breathless is just wonderful. It started my whole obsession with Jean Paul Belmondo, who I think is frigging sexy! This whole film is rather sexy, if I remember correctly. Love that ending.

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    1. Breathless is quite a sexy movie. I loved the ending too!

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  4. Wonderful post! I love both of these films so much, both refreshing and beautiful in their own way, and I'm glad my recommendation paid off.

    You are right that Jacques Demy wasn't an official member of the New Wave in the strictest sense. But he along with directors like Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, and Louis Malle emerged around the same time as the core new wavers (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette) who all started out as critics for Cahiers du Cinema. Looking back we now consider them all to be part of a broad New Wave than what was officially recognized at the time.

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    1. Thanks! And yes, thank you for recommending them. They were great.

      Aren't they part of the Left Bank? I don't know, it is all quite confusing to me, but I'm sure I'll get used to it!

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    2. Yeah but really only serious film academics care or try to make that distinction.

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  5. Looks like I need to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ASAP! Glad you liked Breathless, it is wonderful. Off the top of my head I can only think of three other New Wave films I'd class as essential (that you haven't already seen), and those are Day for Night, Vivre sa Vie and Last Year at Marienbad, which I think you said you were seeing. Look forward to hearing what you see next. Also, the New Wave style is hard to define precisely, so you may see elements and styles you're unfamiliar with, but you just have to get used to those. Can't wait for the next update!

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    1. I have Vivre sa Vie at home, which I'll be watching this weekend. And I'll probably watch Hiroshima mon Amour, too. I'm trying to get a good mix of directors. I will, however, watch Day for Night next week.

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  6. Ahhhh French New Wave.....

    I have seen probably less than you Stevee. I blame my wife, I can only slip a world cinema film in once or tiwce a week, and even then it generally has to be modern....

    Great post

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    1. Haha, I know how that is. I need more world cinema in my life, so this is a handy way of doing it.

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  7. I have to say Breathless is one Godard film I do want to revisit, cos it's over 20 years since I saw it and in that time I've only seen a fair selection of his other films and liked almost none of them. I didn't particularly like Breathless back then either, so I'd just be interested to see what I think of it now.

    Godard's earlier films are (at least judging by what I've seen) more accessible than his later ones. I just think there's something shallow about his oeuvre, I think Godard was not pranking people exactly but early on I think he was having fun and took his films less seriously than other people did. And then at some point he made the mistake of doing the same thing as them. And then, from 1967 onwards, he made the rather worse mistake of turning into a "political artist" of the worst sort, i.e. one who puts the politics ahead of the art, from which I don't know that he ever really recovered.

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    1. I have heard that Godard has made some interesting sorts of films in the recent past. For example, that Film Socialisme of whatever it is called looks a little too strange for my liking. I'm just going to keep sticking to his early stuff.

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    2. Film Socialisme fits in thematically with what he's always done - explore the limits of language (I think his next film is just going to be called "The End of Language" or something like that, and I was just like....that's every Godard film!). But it's a very abrasive, in-your-face kind of film, with essentially no narrative. It's hard to watch and mesmerizing at the same time. People who like Godard tend more toward "mesmerizing," and people who don't think it's utterly awful. So yeah, I'd hold way off on that one for a while.

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    3. Yeah, it doesn't particularly interest me - but I get what he is trying to do.

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  8. Great post! I really need to see more of Godard films, I love Breathless, I agree it is a heartbreaking movie. As for musicals...I'm not a fan. I'm pretty sure I won't like Les Miserables, I never thought sadness and musicals really are a good mix. I like Moulin Rouge! though, but that's mostly because of the bold approach Luhrman chose for this film.

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    1. You probably won't like Les Miserables, but it is quite a good story. I must say though, I like musicals like Moulin Rouge because musicals are supposed to be bold and colourful. Baz Luhrmann is the perfect guy for that genre.

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  9. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is in that unofficial list of films I'm dying to see as is its sequel. Plus, I just love Catherine Deneuve. She's still gorgeous.

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    1. Ha, I'd love to see a sequel to that! And Catherine Deneuve is gorgeous. Love her.

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  10. Godard can be difficult, but Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, and Band of Outsiders are probably the best entry points. Don't make the mistake of jumping straight into Contempt or anything he did after 1966.

    I'm thrilled that you're having such a good time with the New Wave so far! (I just caught up with your previous post and this one at the same time, so I'll comment on both together.) You picked four great ones to start. The 400 Blows is the film I credit with being my entrance into becoming a real cinephile. I liked movies (and classic movies) a lot before that, but like you said in your review, The 400 Blows was revelatory to me in terms of just what cinema was capable of doing.

    I didn't see Cleo from 5 to 7 until a couple of years ago, but I had much the same reaction as you. I love the simple style of it that just grabs you of nowhere when you're not expecting it - I found watching it overwhelming and very relatable, even though Varda is incredibly unmanipulative in how she presents the story. I should watch that again. It's a heartbreaking one, but her 1985 film Vagabond is just about as good, though not quite as New Wave-y in style.

    Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I'm not a typically weepy, romantic person, but this film makes my heart hurt (almost literally) every single time. I second the suggestion of going on to Young Girls of Rochefort. It's also Demy and Deneuve (who's impossibly even more beautiful than she is in Cherbourg), but bright and sunny and happy instead. It's one of my top two or three films I turn to when I need a bit of grin-inducing joy.

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    1. I'm sticking with Godard's early stuff. Seems like the best way to do it!

      And yes, I'm having a wonderful time with the New Wave stuff. The 400 Blows was a fantastic example of what cinema can do.

      I do quite want to see Vagabond - I'd love to see more of Varda's work. leo was great.

      And yes, Cherbourg does make your heart hurt. I will track down The Young Girls of Rochefort, then! Especially if Deneuve is more beautiful in that! (how is that even possible?!)

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    2. Every film I see Deneuve in, she's more beautiful than the last one I saw her in. It's kind of incredible, really.

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    3. She is incredibly beautiful. I'd love to have some of her genes!

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  11. I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a long while ago. We had it on TV all the time for some reason. I can't say that I loved it but so many years have passed and I can't be sure.

    As for Breathless, that's the one that really interests me. Images from it (like the one you posted) seem to be iconic. I stumple upon them all the time.

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    1. Definitely check it out again. Such a magical movie.

      Breathless does have some very iconic pictures from it. It is a great film, too!

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  12. French movies? Interesting.... Do you actually know understand French, or do you just turn on the subtitles?
    Either way these sound like pretty good movies! And I'm with you on musicals - you can't beat a good one!!!

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    1. Subtitles, but I do know a little bit of French.

      When you get a good musical, you definitely can't beat it!

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  13. Sorry I'm a little late to comment on here, but this was a great article. I was lucky enough to catch "Breathless" in theatres when it was renewed. I will pick up the Criterion BlueRay of that soon. Now I just wish they would release "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" on that format as well.

    Catherine Deneuve is great. I wrote about two of her movies including "Umbrellas..." in an article that came out last year.

    http://www.videovangaurd.com/2011/06/videovangaurd-presents-retro-review.html

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    1. I would love to see Breathless in theatres, and also get the Criterion copy of it. One day, one day. And Umbrellas would be epic on Blu-Ray!

      Thanks, I'll check out your post now.

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  14. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. windproof travel umbrella

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You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

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