Thursday, December 23, 2010

Musicals with a Twist

Films: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Dancer in the Dark
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Umbrellas), VHS from DeKalb Public Library (Dancer), both on big ol’ television.

Before I get too involved here, I want to preface this with the part of this movie that still makes my head spin a little bit. Our two main characters here are Guy (pronounced “Gee” with a hard g”) and Genevieve (pronounced “Zhaun-vee-EV”). While not particularly uncommon names in France, these are not names we hear much in the States. Nonetheless, my wife’s parents also happened to be named Guy and Genevieve, albeit pronounced in the American fashion.

In musicals, typically the characters break out into song at specific times, and it’s never that hard to tell when a song is coming. The music swells a little, the people stand up a little straighter to get their breathing right, and all conversation stops. This is not the case with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The reason for that is that every single line of dialogue in this movie is sung. There is no speech; there is only music and lyrics. This is jarring at first, especially with the subtitles on, as it quickly becomes apparent that, like everyday life, most of the lyrics are pretty banal. People ask for their car to be filled with gas, buy umbrellas, and talk about what they want for dinner. They just do it as a song. There’s no effort toward rhyme, no effort to produce a chorus.

This is an important distinction. While all of the dialogue is sung, it is actual dialogue. These aren’t songs. There’s no reprise except at times in the music. There aren’t frequently repeated lines or recognizable stanzas. A given speech is as long as it normally would be—there’s no effort put into characters having their dialogue of a certain length or set to a specific meter. Essentially, it’s a regular movie, except that the music is constant and everybody sings all the time. The next time you speak with a co-worker, imagine singing your conversation. SomeTIMES you might EMphasize words, speeduptosticktothemeter and then gooooo slooooooooooooow. It’s like that.

Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) lives and works with her mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) in her mother’s umbrella shop, called “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg,” hence the name of the film. Genevieve is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), who works as a mechanic. Her mother stands against the union for several reasons. For one thing, Genevieve is only 17 and Guy is just 20. Additionally, she has had a note for 80,000 francs come due, and if she can’t pay, she’ll lose the shop. Genevieve doesn’t care—she loves Guy and wants to marry him, and he wants to marry her. Guy lives with his godmother Elise (Mireille Perrey), who is taken care of by Madeleine (Ellen Farner). It’s evident that while Guy loves Genevieve, Madeleine has a little crush on Guy.

To save the shop, Genevieve convinces her mother to part with some of her jewelry. The jeweler can’t buy her necklace, but a diamond merchant named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) offers to take the necklace and sell it on her behalf. There are a few tense days as they wait for the money, and Genevieve goes off to spend time with Guy. As it happens, he’s gotten his draft notice and will have to spend two years in Algiers. The two spend a night of passion together and he leaves. Meanwhile, Cassard returns with the proceeds from the necklace and shows interest in Genevieve.

Naturally, that night of passion results in pregnancy. Cassard continues to press his suit for Genevieve despite the fact that she is carrying another man’s baby. Guy writes infrequently, and eventually, feeling abandoned by him, Genevieve agrees to marry Cassard, and starts a new life with him.

Two years later, Guy returns to Cherbourg. He quits his job almost immediately, and just as suddenly, Elise dies. Now missing the two most important women in his life, unable to marry Genevieve, he realizes how much he likes Madeleine, and after a courtship, they marry and have a son. Guy uses his inheritance to purchase his own service station. It is in that role that he is working when Genevieve returns to Cherbourg with her daughter…who is also his daughter.

Here’s the thing—the story here is one that has been told and retold a number of times, but there is a significant difference with this telling. However, this difference is best put in a spoiler.


They recognize each other right away of course, and Guy invites Genevieve into his office. She asks him if he would like to meet his daughter, and he declines, telling her that she should leave. As she drives away, Madeleine and their son arrive, and he plays with his son in the fresh snowfall outside.

Here’s why I appreciate this: The typical romantic movie would have these two run off together, or at least be really tempted to rekindle their romance. It’s evident that there’s some desire on both of their parts right away, but that this desire is greatly subdued by the reality of their lives. It’s not evident that Genevieve is happy or unhappy, but she doesn’t press the point, or ask Guy to run away with her. Guy’s life with Madeleine is evidently satisfying enough that he’s not really tempted in the first place. This is a real decision from real people who live in the real world.


In a typical musical, we’d find quickly that Cassard is a bastard and that Madeleine is a shrew. In this case, Cassard is actually a very nice guy and Madeleine is quite sweet. They’re nice people—they just aren’t the people Guy and Genevieve originally fell in love with.

There’s an initial shock to this film once everyone starts singing, and a second shock once it’s realized just how banal most of the dialogue is. But this passes. The movie is completely internally consistent, and most musicals are not. I rather liked it. Surprise, surprise. I’ll say this, though: now that I’ve seen it and know the story, I’d rather watch it without the subtitles so I’m not constantly reminded of the rather pedestrian nature of the lyrics.

Dancer in the Dark is a completely different take on musicals—different in many ways from the standard and also different from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. For starters, the first musical number doesn’t appear for the first 40 minutes or so of the film. Selma Jezkova (Bjork) is a Czech immigrant who has moved to Washington State to create a better life for her son. Specifically, she has inherited a genetic disorder that has been slowly ruining her vision, and the condition is progressing. She works at a local factory, and she and her son scrimp as much as possible. She tells him it is because they are so poor, but in reality, she is saving for an operation that will prevent the condition that is blinding her from doing the same thing to her son (Vladica Kostic).

Selma is also enamored of musicals, and participates in amateur theater. Since her eyesight is disintegrating, she is taken back and forth to rehearsals by Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). Selma and her son live in a trailer on the property of Bill (David Morse) and his wife (Cara Seymour). We learn quickly that Bill has inherited a great deal of money, but the money has run out. Debts are coming due, his wife is a spendthrift, and he can’t bear to tell her that they are broke.

He tells this to Selma, and she tells him about her eye condition and the money she is saving for her son’s procedure. Her eyes have gotten so bad, though, that he feigns leaving the room to discover where she keeps the money. When Selma’s eyes have gotten to the point where she can no longer work, she discovers that the money has been stolen. She confronts Bill, who has told his wife that Selma attempted to seduce him. A confrontation happens, and ultimately, Selma kills Bill to get her money back. She is promptly arrested and sentenced to hang.

Along the way, we encounter a cast of excellent character actors including Peter Stormare as Jeff, Selma’s potential love interest; Lars von Trier favorite Udo Kier as a doctor; Siobhan Fallon as a prison guard; Joel Grey as an aging former tap dance star; and Zeljko Ivanek as a prosecuting attorney.

Where the film is surprising is in the musical numbers. Selma is entranced by old movie musicals, and frequently fantasizes about them. Any rhythmic noise, like the machines in the factory in which she works, becomes the background for substantial musical numbers that include anyone who happens to be in the area. These are elaborate and fascinating, and evidently take place entirely in her mind, because when the musical numbers end, no time has passed.

For me, someone who tends to have a problem with musicals, strangely enough, it’s the musical numbers here that make the film work. They make perfect sense to me in the context of this film because they are all fantasies in the mind of Selma. In her musical world, she says, “nothing dreadful ever happens.” After she kills Bill, for instance, a musical number begins in which Bill is alive again and participates, his wife is happy to see Selma and helps her escape, and life is as good as it ever gets.

Of course, nothing good happens here. That’s sort of the point.

I can’t say I enjoyed watching Dancer in the Dark, but I can say that it is very well made and that I’m glad I watched it. With the number of musicals I have enjoyed so far this year, it appears that I can no longer say that I dislike them as a general rule.

It's worth adding this as well: it may very well be that admitting to liking Bjork's music is akin to admitting enjoying Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, or Zamphir, but I'll make the admission. I don't own anything by Bjork, but I've never heard a song of hers on the radio and rushed to turn it off the way I do with most of the garbage my 12-year-old favors. Her odd musical style, rhythmic sense, and phrasings work in this film--the "I've Seen it All" number on the train is one of the best musical numbers I've ever seen in a film, and much of the reason for that is Bjork.

Okay, she's weird. However, if you have children between the ages of five and nine and ever sat with them through an episode of LazyTown on Nickjr., you know that she is not the strangest thing to come from Iceland.

Why to watch Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: A very different sort of musical.
Why not to watch: Remember how much Cop Rock sucked?

Why to watch Dancer in the Dark : The most original take on musicals in a couple of decades.
Why not to watch: The events are inevitable, terrible, and painful to watch.


  1. Crazy, isn't it? I have no explainable reason why I liked it, but I really did.

  2. i liked it too, though not as much as my friends had told me i would

  3. I decided to watch Dancer in the Dark, but I kept putting it off because Breaking the Waves is still fresh in my memory and I kept asking myself "Am I REALLY in the mood for von Trier tonight?"

    The first night I watched Orpheus (1949) instead.

    The second night I watched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

    The third night I watched Black Lizard, a 1969 Japanese film that Mishima was involved with. (It's free on YouTube!)

    The fourth night I went to bed early and didn't watch anything.

    I finally watched Dancer in the Dark and I liked it quite a bit better than Breaking the Waves. Bjork kind of cracks me up, Catherine Deneuve just brings so much to everything she's in, I love the Sound of Music rehearsal scenes (a lot more than I like The Sound of Music itself), the discussions about musicals are great, the Bjork musical numbers are quirky and sort of awesome in a weird way (especially the first one!) and then ... Joel Grey!

    Von Trier more than made up for Breaking the Waves with this one.

  4. Ah, see this is what I get for being too busy with work to respond to comments on older reviews. I'd have waited on Dancer in the Dark because it's a straight punch to the gut.

    That said, as much as I dislike von Trier, I was impressed with Dancer in the Dark.

  5. I think we are pretty much in line when it comes to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The initial "shock" of the banality and the constant singing is eventually replaced by respect and sympathy.

    1. Yeah, it's the ending that really makes it for me. This is how romances should end in my opinion.