Entranced, romantic, utopian and utterly French, Jacques Demy has always been the most patronized and underappreciated of the major nouvelle vague voices, but he was aware as few director have ever been about the similarities between Hollywood and life — shit happens, be it tragic or joyous. It just so happens that Demy loved the shit, all of it: love affairs begun and betrayed, everyday minutiae accumulating into bursts of swoony heartbreak, very real oceanside towns envisioned as slices of candy-coated heaven.
His masterpiece was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
(1964), a wide-screen, chiffon-&-cherry-mousse wartime tragedy in which every word — even "Pass the bread" — is sung in a Michel Legrand lilt. One can only imagine the naysayers Demy had to persuade to get this helium-pumped dirgible off the ground, but the fact is it floats like a party balloon, and has a hypnotizing effect that may be unique in the history of movies. Still, its effervescence doesn't shirk from implicit deconstruction — the film is a self-analyzing bombardment of happiness, always wondering how far and near the formal idealism of musicals is to the genuine flow of life. As a young girl working in her mother's seaside umbrella shop and secretly in love with a mechanic destined to be drafted, Catherine Deneuve, barely 20, was more or less discovered amid the swoony ironies of Demy's seaside idyll, and the machineries of romantic joy and heartbreak are visible around her like the workings of a beautiful but fragile clock.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg plays Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Arts and Design's New Wave anniversary series.