I first tried to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the late 90s. I’m not sure what format we watched it on. It might have been VHS and it might not have been the restored version from 1992. My best friend and I had heard good things about it and we always watched movies together. (I remember arguing heatedly about Touch of Evil while riding home on our bikes after seeing the restored version at the Music Box in Chicago. I loved it. He thought it was boring.) After about 15 minutes of hearing every line of dialogue sung, we turned to each other simultaneously and began giggling.
We couldn’t it take it anymore, or couldn’t take it right then, as my buddy said. We were punk rock queers, listening to Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, experimental noise rock like the Scissor Girls and brutal minimalist guitar rock like Shellac. My friend was in a Shellac-like band himself. I often said I was not a musical-theater fag, though my boyfriend was. That seemed an important distinction to make then, an assertion and a marker of a subdivided and rebellious identity within a subculture.
I never tried to watch Umbrellas again until last night, when I choked up after Guy admits his love for Geneviève as he’s talking to his godmother, Elise. Elise starts to cry, too. I was moved by a number of other things, even formal elements, such as a cut from Guy and Geneviève embracing on the street while planning their future to a slow dolly-in to a similar embrace in a café. I found myself distracted at times by the vivid floral wallpaper throughout the film when I should have been looking at the actors, but I did study the hairstyle changes of handsome, sad-faced Nino Castelnuovo who plays Guy and kept wondering about Catherine Deneuve’s wigs. It’s a film that seems to simultaneously invite contemplation of its artificiality while pulling you in and putting one over at the same time.
Most of what we call taste can be attributed to simply enjoying the repeated pleasures of pattern recognition, and being human, not wanting those expectations to be disrupted or challenged. And you know what, people who think of themselves as cultural rebels are often pretty conservative when it comes to genre, particularly aging punks. Anyway, Umbrellas (and musicals in general) was a challenge I wasn’t willing to face some years ago. Turns out it’s just as pleasurable as verse chorus verse. I’m glad I grew up and got over it. (I still love noise rock, though.)
I will say that the final scene and especially the final shot has to be one of the saddest I’ve ever seen in any movie of any genre. Geneviève and Guy meet for one last time “by chance,” but Guy never meets his kid, doesn’t want to. We never even get a clear shot of her, sitting in the car by herself waiting for mom. The stark lights and snow of that Esso station, so fucking cold and white.