Tuesday, 25 March 2008


In addition to the vast availability of bootleg DVDs of recent films available through street vendors throughout Seoul, there are also cheap DVDs (between 3900 and 7900 won) of older films for sale at the larger book stores in the city (Kyobo and Bandis & Lundi). I recently (and finally) watched Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg through one of these DVDs and it was one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I've had.

I recently listened to an old review of the film on filmspotting.com and one of the questions that was raised was whether the music and singing was necessary to the story. The uniqueness of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that all of the film is scored and all of the dialogue is sung. Thus it is a musical that is in many ways not one, in the sense that there are no song and dance performances and very little traditional spectacle. But what the singing dialogue and score do accomplish is make the film distinctive of what the French New Wave represents as a whole.

The French New Wave, as exemplified by such early films as Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959), was an extreme mixture of realism and formalism. Traditionally, realism and formalism are seen as opposite poles of the spectrum, but the French New Wave challenges this dichotomy by treating these terms as more circular in nature. For example, Godard's jump cuts are such an extreme formal device that they become realistic in the sense that they call attention to the reality of the viewing experience (film is not reality, it is an illusion). Likewise, some of the more realistic long takes in a film like The 400 Blows continue for so long that they can actually draw attention to the presence of the camera.

Without the music and singing dialogue, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg would be a rather realistic, bittersweet melodrama. However, as a musical, it offers a reconsideration of both the musical and the melodrama. The extreme stylization of the use of music makes strange the realistic story of a couple torn apart by the Algerian War, and at the same time, the quotidian nature of the story grounds the spectacle of the musical genre. This is especially the case during the final third of the film, labeled "The Return." Instead of a conventional happy ending, Demy takes the material into darker places before eventually concluding with a emotionally complex finale. The final shot, seen in the still below, is one of the most resonant I can remember.

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