BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: bittersweet rain.

I MIGHT as well admit from the outset that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) is one of my all-time favourite films. The main motif gets me every-time. That final scene is one of the most amazing bittersweet scenes in cinematic history. And it was an absolute pleasure seeing it on the big-screen for the first time, the colours and music even more vibrant than on a TV. Admittedly it’s not for all tastes, the fact the character sing “hello” and “thank you” to each other, may seem a little redundant – and for many, the all-singing, downbeat feel may take a bit of getting used to. But once you submit yourself to its pleasures – visually, aurally, emotionally – Demy’s film is one of the richest and most rewarding films ever made in my humble opinion.

Demy takes a simple plot: boy (Guy played by Nino Castelnuevo) and girl (Genevieve played by the stunning Catherine Deneuve) fall in love, boy leaves, girl ends up with another man, boy comes back a man and alone. This narrative is so simple, it could have been made as a Dogme 95 exercise, or a short film (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love owes a wee debt to this film). But Demy infuses it with a rare magic where everyday life and characters scrambling a meagre existence becomes imbued with a sense of magic, a heightened sense of beauty. Rain-drenched streets and petrol stations have never looked so beautiful. And this comes from Demy’s stylistic choices – the incredible visual palette which included repainting parts of the real Cherbourg, the costumes, the wondrous camera shots (particularly the final shot and the scene at the train station), are so stylised and extravagant, that they soak the film with emotion and sadness.

Musicals are a funny beast – synonymous with escapism and whimsy. Musicals (both theatrically and filmically) have worked in the way they interrupt the narrative with explosions of colour, emotion, and costumes to heighten the spectacle. Demy uses this as a starting point, but incorporates his music all into the everyday story – doomed love, isolation, societal pressures, even quiet political commentary. While people can accept conventional musicals or opera, this mode of filmmaking for many may seem crazy. But Demy was drawing us into the song of the real world, (it’s much more rewarding if you understood the rhythmic conversational French unfortunately), the hellos and thank yous a dance of everyday rituals.

Demy was fascinated with the idea of doomed relationships, to him people don’t often marry the right person. No-one in this film is in a happy relationship. The film is a pseudo-continuation of Lola, where the male protagonist of this film is the rich jeweller of Les Parapluies, meaning you’ve already got some sympathy for a man who is essentially the relationship-breaker. Demy leaves so much unsaid, that his characterisation is so rich. We suspect that Genevieve’s mother wants Genevieve to marry for her own financial benefit, we suspect that Guy didn’t write to Genevieve because of his war injury, that Madeleine will always suspects the truth. But then again, the ending is so bittersweet because Guy and Genevieve shouldn’t be together, but it’s so sad that they’re not. It’s just that it’s impossible now. There’s a pun going on which hints at this too – the name of the petrol station is “Escale Cherbourgeoisie”. This literally means “Cherbourgian stopover”, or, if you prefer, considering the meaning of escalier: “bourgeoisie step up”. The two are almost too different, too different from their former selves and former lifestyle, to ever be together – the moment where everything was right has slipped away from their lives through fate and coincidences. The innocence and excitement of going to see Carmen together at the theatre can never be recaptured.

The alienation of Algerian war veterans, the societal pressures that still assumed a single woman cannot raise a baby herself, the cost of social mobility, the unavoidable Americanisation (people might criticise the final scene as product placement for Esso, but Demy uses it to highlight a resigned sense of inevitability of modernity), all form the subtext to the doomed love affair. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg swirls with both tragedy and comedy, much more complex and darker than it appears on the surface, a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word.