Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sympathy for the Non-Threatening, Well-Meaning Devil: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Mrs. Dalloway


So I finally sat down the other day and watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) for the first time. It was very singy, soft, and frothy. IN A FRENCH FILM?! After recovering from my scathingly sarcastic shock, I ruminated about it for a little while.

The two young lovers, Genevieve and Guy (the very blonde Catherine Deneuve and the very there Nino Castelnuovo), are star-crossed and giddy, full of vivacious passion for each other. When Guy reveals he's been drafted into the army, the gorgeous, heart-rending "I Will Wait For You" plays as they walk broken and dazed down their favorite streets in Cherbourg. Then--woe!--even their great, eternal love cannot keep them from falling, during Guy's absence, into other arms.

And you know what? After careful meditation, I discover I much prefer those other arms to the principal lovers.

Maybe I'm wired wrong. Maybe Guy and Genevieve's love isn't a deliberate spoof on swoony, semi-queasy infatuation that I secretly think director Jacques Demy was hinting at, and their devotion is instead "The Real Thing." Maybe I should approve of their teeny-bopper spurts of poetic song-speak, and be genuinely touched when Genevieve buries her pale face into Guy's strong hands, begging him not to leave her.

But...well...like I said, I'm wired wrong. Them two don't grab my sympathy nearly as much as Genevieve's older, devoted suitor Roland (Marc Michel), or the pining, hardworking Madeleine (Ellen Farner), who nurses Guy's ailing godmother and provides moral support for them both.

If I were Genevieve, I would have chosen the older, sophisticated, quietly wistful Roland in a heartbeat, whether or not there were certain circumstances that kind of demanded I did. I mean, he doesn't do a lot for me, but neither does Guy. My faulty wiring dictates I choose weirdos to crush on, and neither men are spooky or off-kilter enough for my tastes. But Roland's story appeals to me more than any of the other characters'. Despite all the duets Guy and Genevieve volley back-and-forth, I find Roland's brief, melancholic solo about his lost love Lola the most intoxicating moment in the film.

I acknowledge it's wrong in a lot of ways. He's older than Genevieve. And his unrequited love for Lola could foreshadow vague shades of Vertigo in the future for Genevieve--although I don't see how anybody could even attempt making over Deneuve to look like Anouk Aimee. Y'see--and this might be part of what's so fascinating about Roland to me--after watching the movie I toddled on over to IMDb, as I always do, and scouted out the trivia. The "Lola" story is from a previous Demy film called Lola (appropriately enough), in which Aimee stars as the titular showgirl, with Michel in the same role of Roland. Only Lola's Roland is apparently much more of a rebellious firebrand than the somewhat stiff and moody jewelry salesman we see in Umbrellas.

The invisible evolution of this character from Guy-like ragamuffin to staid, reliable bachelor with a hidden store of passion is tantalizing to think about. And at the core of this passion is nothing but a noble regard for Genevieve. More than any of Guy's impassioned oaths never to forget Genevieve, I found Roland's curiously calm and detached profession to her mother that he lives for Genevieve far more romantic. Plus, there's the scene when he first sees her which I find ever-so sweeping: he's bartering some gems with the local jeweler, flippantly comparing them to what Sleeping Beauty wore, when he happens to look up and his blue eyes grow misty with tender surprise at the sight of the taciturn Genevieve shuffling quietly into the shop.

Nothin' quite like instant, unwavering, unrequited love to make a movie memorable.

As for Madeleine, I guess you could write off my sympathy for her as part of my crusading bid to root for the underdog, the plainer girl in painful love with the strapping protagonist. I mean, let's face it, that's probably the only reason why I'm a Spock/Chapel fan, for example. And yes, despite everything, deep down in my core I'm still a House/Cameron fan (YEAH THERE I SAID IT WHUT! OPPOSITES ATTRACT FTW!). But that's not always the case with me. Like I said in my Dora Spenlow post, I'm much more a fan of her character than I am of the long-suffering Agnes, and my heart goes out to the beloved, distraught Lucy rather than the hilarious but quite demented Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Maybe supporting unpopular pairings is another of my inexplicable tics.

Or maybe, just maybe, I find Madeleine's character more likable than Genevieve. Simple as that.

We can rule out my natural inclination as a brunette to demonize the lovely blonde--remember, I side with yellow-haired Lucy over Lovett. But unlike Lucy and Dora, Genevieve is too icy. There's nothing warm or cuddly about her--too aloof and French valley-girl for my tastes, even in her scenes with Guy. Again, this might be intentional on Demy's part, and it may be how he directed Deneuve to act. I think he knew what he was doing. But Madeleine in her few scenes is a woman replete with warmth. That can be suffocatingly cloying, or it can be endearing. Ferner manages to imbue Madeleine with the latter trait without making a show of it; in other words, while Deneuve is off in beautiful-ice-queen-twinkly-land, Madeleine captures the role of the insecure, shy, but ultimately strong woman more capable of long-lasting love. And unlike David Copperfield's Agnes, Madeleine is a bit dowdier and mousier, which makes her angelic qualities more palatable, and her all around character more relatable.

She ends up the epitome of the underdog who I want to shake by the shoulders and say, "it'll be okay! He has to love you eventually! I mean, you're sweet and junk! So he has to! Right? Right??"

She--and to a certain extent, even the dreamy Roland--anchor the movie with loves far more enduring than the white-hot blah blah of Genevieve and Guy. Roland and Madeleine might not seem as conflicted on the surface, or demand as much, but their comparatively simple and frank desires are in stark relief to the raging, outsized hormones wafting from our leads.

Which brings me to Richard Dalloway and Lucrezia Smith in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

I've read the book twice--first in an airport, crankily waiting for a flight, so I didn't really take it all in at the time, then later in a Virginia Woolf class, where the professor actually made us think about what we were reading. I liked it much better then. One of the most enjoyable parts of that class was our required participation on an online message board, where we could basically just expound on whatever facet of the book we found interesting.

One topic I brought up was that Rezia and Richard are the only purely good and likable characters in the novel.

Woolf is a great writer, but she's not always a  fun writer. You could argue that's not the point of reading her. The point is to find a human truth at the center of her characters' inner monologues, facing things they don't want to face, and consequently, that the audience doesn't want to face. She accomplishes this like nobody's bidness, yeah.

But not everyone on the planet has the luxury to allow such upper-class, wistful, deep thoughts to pervade his or her consciousness, or the erudite education to make those thoughts read beautifully even as they reveal the ugliness creating them. And after awhile, Clarissa Dalloway's uptight repressed lesbianism, Peter Walsh's grandiose self-pitying, and Septimus Warren Smith's agonizing madness can grate on one's nerves with how self-centered and overwhelmingly complex their inner conflicts are.

I start to crave comparative bores like Richard and Rezia. Now Rezia isn't hard to sympathize with, so I realize this is no shocking announcement. She's the displaced, unloved wife of Septimus, torn away from her native Milan in order to join her beloved husband in a cramped apartment in London. She's there with only him, and then he rapidly presents symptoms of shell-shock having survived the horrors of WWI. And as no one at the time would admit shell-shock was a real outcome of having bombs constantly exploding right next to you, Rezia is pretty much brushed off and left alone to care for her husband. She carries the brunt of his madness on her shoulders alone. She lacks much imagination, and maybe that's why she sticks it out with Septimus--or perhaps she takes the bonds of marriage seriously, and has sympathy and respect for the turmoil he endured. She does what she does and feels what she feels without shrinking into self-aggrandizing reverie, and for all her plainness of manner and appearance, I think that makes her a truly beautiful, uncorrupted character when compared to the society surrounding her.

To a lesser extent, I feel the same toward Richard, though it's harder to explain why. He's certainly got it better than poor Rezia. He's well off, well respected, and is, well, comfortable. But the thing is he realizes this, and appreciates it without aching for past regrets. His biggest conundrum is expressing his love to Clarissa, but let's face it: Clarissa doesn't exactly inspire one to pour out loving confidences, so maybe it's not all due to Richard's so-called stale personality. Richard's not bombastically, daringly original like Peter, but he does love and he does feel--much more genuinely than Peter, in my book. He loves his daughter Elizabeth. That the cynical Sally Rosseter nee Seton acknowledges this at the story's end and says, "Richard has improved," is evidence enough for me that Woolf creates a good, solid character. A character Clarissa probably needs and relies on more than she, or possibly even Woolf, realizes.

And we readers too need these predictable, blessedly sane characters to keep us afloat amongst breathtaking prose and starry musical romance. Complexity and overwrought emotions are part of what make art great, but if we have no oasis of calmness and sincerity, we have nothing to fall back on, nowhere to catch our breath.You can't have one extreme or another. Nothing but mousy shyness, unrequited love, and well-adjusted gentlemen would induce yawns and impatient punchiness after awhile. On the other hand, nothing but eccentricity and wildness in a piece would soon become self-defeating, since unique is only unique if it has something normal to compare itself to.

Balance is necessary in any medium. Characters like Roland and Madeleine in Umbrellas and Richard and Lucrezia in Mrs. Dalloway illustrate not only this rule, but also that still waters run deep. Their emotions are undoubtedly just as strong as those expressed in unending song or verbose inner monologue. But instead of indulging in those two venues, characters like the above know their feelings and desires down to their bones in ways those other characters may not, therefore feeling little need to magnify their emotions. The sheer, glossy entertainment factor might not be as present in these characters, but in retrospect, their plights might get to you a bit more once the story ends.


  1. Hey, Laura. Sorry to barge in on a long-ago post, but I just saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg last night and felt the need to ponder over it a bit to someone. And then I remembered you'd said something a while back so I dug this post up. Hope you don't mind. :)

    I think I liked Genevieve more than you did, mainly because I like her little bursts of flat, no-nonsense humor. To me, it kind of reins in all the overpowering romance and gives her more dimension. You can see that she's going to turn out into a much more practical woman than her mother. Actually, I really liked the mother too and she's normally a character type that would irritate me no end.

    But for the most part, I agree with you that Guy and Genevieve have traded up as far as romantic partners go. I especially like Madeleine for the moment where she tells Guy off on how he's changed. She may be mousy and in love, but she's no shrinking violet. Roland, I'm a little more iffy on, even though I certainly don't dislike him. But I like his dignity and the little bits of romantic past.

    I think the only person I'm flat out not interested in is Guy. I think it's sort of what I think of as the Romeo factor. We spend time with Juliet/Genevieve, seeing her struggle, weighing her options, suffer quietly, while Romeo/Guy shows up to flail around emotionally and complain and anguish. Except in Juliet and Romeo's case, they have a lot of witty, romantic banter together while Guy and Genevieve are, for all their gorgeous looks and singing in the streets, pretty ordinary.

    Anyway (deep breath after all that blather), thanks for your post. Gives me another way to think of this film.

  2. Wonderful, thank you for commenting! I have mixed feelings about this post, actually. Re-reading it, I sound a lot like a whiny fangirl, beating up on poor Genevieve. In retrospect, her character does have a lot more backbone and humor than I gave her credit for, and which you rightly point out. I think part of my beef is with Deneuve's performance. This is the only movie I've seen her in the whole way through (besides a lot of clips and whatnot), but she always leaves me a little cold. Physically she's beautiful and delicate, but in such an icy and inaccessible way that works against her likability here. I don't really buy her vulnerability or her hurt.

    And I agree with you, Guy's an amiable blank to me. If he and Genevieve didn't make beautiful music together (and I don't mean that in a dirty way, of course), I doubt they'd hold much interest to audiences. Roland's a strange character, but the fact he's strange and you have to think about him a little already makes him more compelling than Guy in my book.

    Still, no matter what, I love the song "I Will Wait for You." Mostly because the first time I heard it was at the end of a Futurama episode that had me in tears. And I am not ashamed to admit that.

    Thank you again for your comment, Rachel! Feel free to "blather" anytime you like, you do it so well. :)