I made a terrible mistake the other night.
I know. I know.
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?
After all, there’s virtually no precedent, but unlikely as it may seem, it’s true.
My inexcusable blunder?
I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
The blame rests solely on the shoulders of the critics who have welcomed La La Land as the Second Coming of Cinematic Art, bending their knees in worship of it, shouting hosannas to its beauty and originality.
“Soaring and gorgeous!
“A gorgeous romantic fever dream of a musical.”
“A film you simply never want to stop watching.”
The chorus is almost deafening, and it has been joined by other voices in other rooms–The Hollywood Foreign Press, The American Film Institute, The Directors Guild, The Producers Guild—virtually every professional organization in Hollywood, including the loudest voice of all…
…The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which bestowed an almost unprecedented fourteen nominations on this blessed production!
Now, as a member of The Writers Guild, I’ve long had a copy of La La Land in my hot little hand.
It arrived, courtesy of UPS, along with a dozen or so others from producers promoting their wares in their selfless quest for glory, box-office dollars, DVD sales and other ancillary income during the fall/winter award season.
I deliberately held off watching it out of my firm conviction that one should always save the best for last—a conviction that probably derives from my long career as a screenwriter: an acolyte of Syd Field, I invariably build to a climax at the end of each act and save the biggest, best bang of all for the end.
During this long period of self-imposed denial, I found myself reading more and more about the film and learned that its writer/director, Damien Chazelle, was a huge fan of Jacques Demy, that his favorite film was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that Demy’s masterpiece was, in many ways, the direct inspiration for La La Land.
…when I’d worked my way through all of the other Academy qualifiers, when I had left nothing but La La Land unseen, I did what any other red-blooded American film fanatic would do: I decided to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a prelude to my long-anticipated screening of La La Land.
I would watch the Demy film; I would then watch Chazelle’s homage; I would jump on the bandwagon celebrating La La Land.
(Note my clever reference to the classic MGM musical starring Fred Astaire, no slouch in the singing and dancing department, someone who could, I’m sure, have taught Chazelle and company a few important lessons.)
This strategy of deferred gratification was, as I announced at the beginning of this piece, a terrible mistake.
A catastrophic miscalculation.
Because from the moment it opens, Umbrellas is nothing short of magic!
It begins with a wide shot of the harbor, transforming this working-class military port into an impressionistic painting.
The camera, accompanied by Michel Legrand’s lush romantic score, pulls back to an overhead shot of a cobblestoned street—a checkerboard awash in rain and color as a rainbow of umbrellas begins to move across it in patterns as precise as the words of a crossword puzzle, their holders completely obscured by these dazzling canopies of cloth.
…the first of an endless succession of scenes in which everything—the sets, the props, the costumes—is presented in breathtaking color coordination.
In this case, the set is a common auto mechanics garage, and the dialogue—here and in every other sequence in the film—is sung rather than spoken, sung in spite of the utter commonplace of the sentiments expressed, sung to the accompaniment of that amazing Michel Legrand score.
The mundane is rendered magnificent.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as artificial, as stylized as a film can be…and as real, as profound as life itself.
It begins with young love–at first yearning and hopeful, then bittersweet and heartbreaking.
It ends with mature love—an adult acceptance of reality in place of romance, responsibility in place of headlong passion.
And the performances!
Oh, my God!
To single out one of many…let’s just say I will love Catherine Deneuve until my dying day.
Suffice it to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the great, innovative masterworks of cinema.
It more than justifies Damien Chazelle’s enthusiasm for it.
And it unfortunately reveals La La Land for what it really is: a nice little imitation of a great original.
A derivative movie with a familiar, stereotypical plot, a mediocre score and a pair of stars who are good enough actors but simply cannot sing and cannot dance.
To paraphrase Fred Astaire…
They can’t dance. Don’t ask them.
More important: Don’t ask the critics anything about the movies.
They see through a glass very darkly and blow a lot of smoke when they should be clearing the air.
COMING UP NEXT
A BACKWARD LOOK
THE BEST FILMS OF A BAD YEAR