If you kept up with reviews during “La La Land”’s theatrical run at the tail end of 2016, you probably ran into at least a few mentions of “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg,” Jacques Demy‘s colorful 1964 romantic musical masterpiece. If you also keep up with The Criterion Collection, you know that “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” just hit home video via a pristine Criterion Blu-ray release this month. This scarcely feels accidental, though with rights acquisitions being what they are, it’s possible that the proximity between “La La Land”’s dominant evening at the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony and the Blu-ray’s street date amounts to little more than a sizable coincidence.
Regardless of strokes of fate or matters of timing, it’s meaningful that “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” should find its way onto our shelves so close to “La La Land”’s time in the awards-season sun. Out of roughly 300 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, about 30% make note of Demy’s film in discussion of Damien Chazelle‘s; of these, the majority mention “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” in passing, a box ticked off to validate the author’s awareness of Chazelle’s references for their audience. A handful make more of the comparison, remarking on the difference between what Demy accomplishes by filtering his life experiences through the big-screen magic of the Hollywood musical, and what Chazelle accomplishes by merely aping Demy. Combined, they leave “La La Land”’s relationship to “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” largely unexamined, which is a shame; when one of the most celebrated films in a given release year is popularly (though maybe not commonly) equated with a cinematic classic, examination feels like a necessity.
A surface-level glance at both movies exposes a smattering of obvious similarities right off the bat: They’re both musical pictures about two young lovers with dreams and plans for the future, they’re both bathed in a kaleidoscopic design palette, and they’re both fueled as much by amour and passion as they are by melancholic heartache. Not to say that Chazelle is guilty for emulating Demy’s aesthetic or adopting his approach to filmmaking; you try watching “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” without feeling inspired by its singular level of craftsmanship and the authenticity of its emotional punch. Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) love each other to the moon and back. Whenever they’re together, they can’t help but look forward, thinking about how they might live and sustain their love. She wants to sell her mother’s shop. He wants to buy a gas station. After scant consideration, she declares the notion “heavenly.”
If that sounds odd — who but else but these two would consider running a gas station in regards to the divine? — then you haven’t been paying attention. “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” is a small-scale movie about very mundane things, but those mundane things take on a grandeur when framed by Guy and Geneviève’s love for one another. Their love is their dream. So long as they can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, everything else is incidental. Demy’s characters want little more than each other, and so the film’s dividing conflict, the Algerian War, feels unjust in both a personal context and an international context. Once Guy is drafted to fight, the dream fractures. Over time, it falls apart entirely. Guy’s correspondences to Geneviève dwindle to nearly nothing. Eventually, her patience runs out and her heart gives up. Grant that not hearing from the person you love when they’re on the front lines of a war would probably fray just about anybody’s nerves. Grant also that when you’re paid to dodge bullets, you don’t always have the luxury of time for writing letters.
So Guy and Geneviève disentangle and go about their lives as individuals, their hopes dissipating into air; they find new love, though their new loves don’t burn quite as brightly as the love they had together; and eventually, by dint of coincidence, they meet again, share a tender moment of reconciliation, and part ways for good. “La La Land” borrows liberally from “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg”’s framework. It’s true that Chazelle’s protagonists, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), start off on shakier ground before becoming an item, but beyond this mild difference, their courtship is cut from the same cloth as Guy and Geneviève’s. They fall deeply in love. They dream their own dreams. They plan for the future. Eventually, they also break up, but not because of a war: Rather, they break up because a sudden bout of professional success sends them rolling down different tracks from one another entirely.
This is where “La La Land” and “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” diverge. Demy leavens his film with decidedly sobering stakes. This is not a film about lovers who become estranged because one of them “makes it” in show biz and the other doesn’t (though if we’re being honest, this, perhaps, somewhat oversimplifies the “why” of Sebastian and Mia’s soured relationship). It’s a film about lovers who become estranged when French imperialism collides with Algerian nationalism following the passage of a couple centuries’ worth of friction between both countries. In a vacuum, “La La Land” breaks hearts and jerks tears, but movies don’t exist in vacuums, and so when likened to one of its greatest influences, the conventionality of “La La Land”’s dramaturgy very nearly reads as privileged.
Most of us know what it’s like to part ways with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or a husband or a wife, it’s true, and if you’ve ever known that kind of suffering, then you know that what Sebastian and Mia go through together, and what they experience in the film’s climax, is a unique and exquisite sort of pain. But the genesis of that pain in “La La Land” is disappointingly common. “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” is a movie about a very real time and a very real place, anchored by observations of that time and place from a very real person, Demy, who informs the film via his time spent in the war-stained city of Nantes as a kid; just as Guy works as a mechanic in a garage, so too did Demy’s father once run a garage himself.
“La La Land,” by contrast, is a movie about the movies, and the problem with movies about the movies is that their perspective is limited to the artifice of cinema. They lack in gravity. Think of “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” as the mirror that reflects “La La Land”’s greenness. Chazelle is a talented filmmaker, and he’s well-intentioned, but he’s inhibited by his nostalgia. His top-down-design approach keeps the film rooted in a fondness for the movies of yesteryear and his fixation on Hollywood’s antiquity. Demy, meanwhile, roots “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” in his upbringing, in things he saw and felt and endured; his film is about basic existential struggles, while Chazelle’s is about the struggle to soothe the self (which isn’t to say that the film is selfish, but that its characters’ struggles are couched in the inessential pursuit of stardom versus the very essential pursuit of love). You get the sense that at any moment, Guy and Geneviève could topple beneath the poverty line, especially after her mother forces her to confront the realities of their sobering financial circumstances: Her umbrella boutique is in dire straits, and without it they have no income (thus fueling her insistence that Geneviève marry the charming jeweler Cassard in the film’s second chapter).
Couple that with Guy’s military draft, and the film’s narrative core is spartan by nature. It isn’t that we can’t relate to “La La Land,” to Sebastian and Mia’s urgent need to realize their dreams. We can all relate to wanting, wishing, longing for everything we want most in life to fall into our laps. In this regard, “La La Land” works and even mines a little bit of genuine humanity from its Hollywood turmoils. But “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” shows us what happens when the dream is love, and what happens when love is stolen from us by forces outside our control. When Demy circles around for the film’s denouement, transpiring five years after the primary plot, he cuts us deep. When Chazelle tries the same thing in “La La Land,” his motivations feel muddled: He seems uncertain about his own reasoning for reuniting Sebastian and Mia, or what their “chance” encounter in Sebastian’s jazz club actually means to them. Love isn’t the dream in “La La Land.” The dream is the dream.
The debt the film owes to “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” is undeniable. More of a question is how well Chazelle understands Demy’s purpose. The style speaks to him. The substance doesn’t. It’s a blessing, then, that Criterion has resurrected “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” to define the word “bittersweet” for us anew.