Ma vie en Cherbourg

Christmas in Cherbourg: Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) reunited.

Première partie: December 1998.  I receive a VHS copy of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a Christmas present.  I’ve never seen the film before but I’m aware that it’s something of a classic, and that every word of its dialogue is sung.  I watch it on the 13” TV in my bedroom and, moony teenager that I am, I find myself moved to tears by the final scene—Genevieve and Guy meeting at the gas station at Christmas, snow falling through the black night around them.  I want to live in the world of this movie.  Every object, every space in it seems to my adolescent imagination perfect: the coziness of the magasin, the vases of flowers in the Emery apartment, the affects on Genevieve’s dressing table.  The colors of the film don’t feel oppressive or strange—they feel charming and lovely.  At first I am jarred by the sung dialogue, especially the blare of jazz with which it begins in the mechanic’s shop.  But I am soon enraptured by it, and I cry for the lovers, cruelly ripped apart by circumstance.  For me at fourteen, barely out of puberty, love is something that only exists in the movies.                

The magasin as a space of color and fantasy.

Douxième partie: January 2005.  College friends invite me to a French film party.  Everyone is supposed to bring a French film to share.  I bring a DVD copy of Umbrellas along with a boy I have just begun dating—my first.  He has a pierced nipple and wears a hemp necklace braided with rainbow-colored beads.  We watch at my friend’s apartment and drink cheap wine out of tumblers. My friends giggle at the movie—the singing, the colors, the broadness of the emotion.  They also giggle at my date; they can see he’s all wrong for me.  He and I break up a few weeks later.  After many years I look him up on Facebook and see that he’s married now, living somewhere I can’t remember.        

Lover's vows: "I will wait for you"

Troisième partie: November 2014.  I buy Criterion’s new box set of Jacques Demy films on Blu-ray and I’m eager to watch Umbrellas with my live-in boyfriend, a musician.  “This director is gay, right?”, he asks me.  “There’s no way a straight man made this movie.  The entire thing is pink!”  I explain that it’s complicated; Demy came out as bisexual late in life but remained happily married to Agnes Varda until his death of AIDS.  A week or so later he surprises me by bringing home the sheet music to Roland Cassard’s aria (my favorite piece of the film’s score) and begins playing it on our piano as I’m in the kitchen washing dishes.  A year later we’re broken up.  By that time I’ve learned how to play Cassard’s aria on my own.     

Roland Cassard: "Autre fois jai aime une femme..."

Quatrième partie: June 2017.  At a birthday party for a friend, four of us watch Umbrellas after dinner, projected onto a screen via the online streaming service FilmStruck.  There is some laughter at the colors (“that wallpaper!”) and at the film’s more audacious touches, like the shot of Guy and Genevieve gliding down the street as if on a moving walkway.  But I’m just as enraptured by the film as I was as a teenager, and I find myself crying for the lovers in all their beautiful innocence.  I’m single now; watching the final scene I wonder, is Guy happy with Madeleine?  Would he have been happier with Genevieve?  Genevieve’s mother seems to me wiser than she once did—pragmatic and cynical, perhaps, but hardly villainous.  And that final scene doesn’t seem so sad as it once did.  In the world of Jacques Demy, old lovers are lost to time and chance and new lovers are found; the music keeps playing; life goes on; the broken promises of youth (“I will wait for you”) are not so much tragic as they are innocent and beautiful in their fragility; and possibility is always waiting on the other side of heartbreak.

Young love.

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