The timing for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” to return is doubly right. A digitally restored version opened at the Brattle on Christmas Day and runs through Monday. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Jacques Demy’s legendary musical, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the final sequence takes place at Christmastime. As spun-sugar holiday treats go, “Umbrellas” is hard to resist.
The movie sounds like nothing special in outline. Geneviève, 17, works in her mother’s umbrella shop. She loves Guy, 20, an auto mechanic, who loves her right back. Guy lives with his godmother — a reminder that we’re watching a fairy tale. Except that reality intrudes. Guy’s draft notice arrives. The year is 1957, and this being France, he’s off to fight in Algeria. That’s not the only bit of seriousness in the movie. There’s also a funeral, two marriages, and two births. Change a few particulars, and the plot could belong to hundreds of other stories — and millions of lives.
Yet how the movie sounds is the first thing that’s special about it. “Umbrellas” is entirely sung. “I don’t like operas/ Movies are better,” Guy sings before taking Geneviève to a performance of “Carmen.” The joke is funny since, of course, he’s in a movie and it’s also an opera. Even the most banal dialogue gets sung. But that’s the point: Michel Legrand’s music exalts every word, the way love exalts life and beauty exalts appearance.
Beauty is the second thing that’s special about “Umbrellas.” Geneviève is played by Catherine Deneuve in full, fabulous bloom. Watching her, one thinks it’s possible that motion pictures were invented for the purpose of putting this woman on screen. She’s even more beautiful than the classic songs Legrand wrote for the movie, “I Will Wait for You” and “Watch What Happens.” Forget the dialogue. Deneuve’s complexion sings, too. Danielle Licari dubs her voice, not that you’d notice.
It’s not just Deneuve’s look that sets apart “Umbrellas” but the look of the whole film. The vibrancy of the solid blocks of background color that Demy uses is almost as startling as the sung dialogue. There are pink walls, red walls, lavender walls, blue walls, green walls, variously striped walls. A lampshade is lemonade-yellow, and a workman’s overalls electric blue. As a piece of art direction “Umbrellas” isn’t color coordinated. It’s color inundated.
What prevents chromatic overload is the way Demy keeps his camera in near-constant motion, not unlike the soundtrack. Guy and Geneviève go dancing one night — “A mambo!” she announces — but it’s the camera that’s terpsichorean. The look of “Umbrellas” is every bit as headlong and buoyant as its sound. When Guy departs from Cherbourg station to be inducted into the army, the camera tracks alongside the train, leaving Deneuve behind on the platform. It’s emotionally crushing — and visually thrilling.
“Umbrellas” is unashamedly slight, and while the slightness is much of the pleasure, it does make for eventual sagging. Part of the sagginess is owing to Marc Michel, as M. Cassard, Guy’s older, prosperous rival for Geneviève. You keep waiting for that fuzzy-caterpillar mustache to crawl off his face and turn into a butterfly. Even so, his presence is a nice referential touch. Michel had played the same character three years before, in Demy’s first film, “Lola.”
In fact, “Umbrellas” can be seen as the linking title in a trilogy. Demy’s next film, “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” reunites him with Legrand for a musical set in a small French port. “Rochefort” is more traditional, with spoken dialogue and dance sequences — including the glorious “Pair of Twins” number (Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorleac being the pair in question). It also features what may be Legrand’s loveliest melody, “You Must Believe in Spring,” and, hooray for Hollywood, none other than Gene Kelly. So if you enjoy “Umbrellas” as a belated Christmas present at the Brattle, you should think about firing up the DVD player to celebrate New Year’s with “Rochefort.”Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.