On this week’s double feature I took a flyer on a couple of films I haven’t seen before. I had no idea going in if they would be good to watch together, but I gave it a shot. This week’s films are:
Jacques Demy – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Hayao Miyazaki – Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984)
I had never seen either of these before, but am very familiar with Miyazaki in general. We’ve covered his work before. However, I’d never seen a Demy film before, and I had no idea what to expect.
So what happened? Let’s get into it.
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
This film is about young love in the late 50’s of France. A young man, Guy, is working at a garage and in love with Genevieve, who works at her mother’s umbrella store. But when Guy is drafted into the army, Genevieve fears she won’t survive without him. This is complicated by her discovering she is pregnant after he leaves. With the distance putting a strain on their relationship, Genevieve catches the eye of Roland, a wealthy diamond merchant who offers to marry her. Will Genevieve choose the man she devoted herself to initially, or the man she sees in front of her? And how will the lives of everyone be affected by her decision?
It”s hard to know where to start with this film, but I’ll this: I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I knew practically nothing about this film when I pulled it off the shelf. It was in a big box set of Demy films that I bought on a whim back when I had a real job, and I had never gotten into it. The first thing I noticed though, which was a surprise: the film is a musical. But it isn’t a song and dance number musical like Singin’ In The Rain. Instead, characters simply sing all their lines throughout the film. There aren’t any structured songs in the film, in the sense of verse/chorus/verse, etc. Just characters singing to each other in a normal conversation.
But even so, one of the most recognizable songs of all time comes from this film. The song is called “I Will Wait For You”. You might not know the name, but try this tune out:
I imagine it’s ringing a few bells. In the film, the melody of the song works as a unifying theme between the two lovers. The lyrics don’t really exist in the film as a structured song. From what I can gather, English lyrics were written and covered by all the big names of the era. Besides the version above, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra recorded the song, among others. The song is hauntingly beautiful, and captures the pain and loneliness that permeates the film. I think the Connie Francis version posted above captures that sense of melancholy best from the versions I found.
The film is separated into three parts. The first, Departure focuses on Guy and Genevieve together, and happy. They go to the theatre, and discuss their future, like how many children they will have, and how Genevieve will tell her mother she wants to get married. But things turn sharply when Guy gets his draft notice, sending him to Algiers for two years. The song comes on strongly here, and the two sing back to each other, not wanting to spend a moment apart. Genevieve walks him into the train and waits there until the train departs before turning away.
The second part of the film is the most complex part of the film, called Absence. In this part, Genevieve discovers she is pregnant and worries that Guy is losing interest, since he doesn’t write as much. Genevieve’s mother is another major character here, and is very down on Guy, telling her that if he cared, he would write more, with no regard for what might really be happening to Guy. When Guy does write, it’s focused on how much he wants to see their son, and the danger he is in.
Roland appears briefly in the first segment, but becomes an essential part of the story in the second. He initially meets mother and daughter when Miss Emery(the mother) wants to sell some jewelry to pay a tax bill. The local jeweler refuses, but Roland, clearly already taken with Genevieve offers to buy it, and resell it on his next trip to Paris or London. Roland is a diamond merchant, and appears very wealthy. Months later, when Genevieve is already pregnant, he comes to dinner at their home, and asks Miss Emery for Genevieve’s hand. Miss Emery doesn’t tell him at this point that Genevieve is pregnant, but says she’ll talk to her.
Genevieve continues to receive very little communication from Guy, and starts to think that accepting Roland’s offer might be a good choice. She decides that when she sees Roland again, she will be visibly pregnant, and if he accepts her in that state, then he must love her enough to marry him. When he sees her, he immediately offers to marry her and raise the child as his own, and the decision is made. They are married.
We then move to the third part, which focuses on Guy, who has returned to Cherbourg. He finds that the umbrella store has been sold, and Genevieve is nowhere to be found. Visiting his ailing aunt and caretaker, he learns of the marriage, which Genevieve has said nothing to him about. It’s kind of a shocking turn for Genevieve’s character. We are told that she is only 17 at the start of the film, so it can be understood how capricious she is about this. Her mother throughout the beginning of the film tells her that she’s too young to worry about love, and that she will eventually forget about Guy. It appears she was correct.
Guy casts about, getting fired from his job at the garage for getting into a fight with the manager, until his ailing aunt dies. Her caretaker Madeline mourns with him. It’s been clear throughout the film that Madeline is in love with Guy. Finally Guy asks her to stay. She agrees. We move quickly through time in this section. We move forward to Guy buying his gas station, which is a dream he shared with Genevieve, and finally, move to Christmas several years later. Madeline and Guy are married and have a child. She and their son go to town to look at toys in the toy store window when a familiar face rolls into the parking lot. Genevieve with her daughter, Guy’s daughter in fact, randomly choose his gas station during her first visit back to Cherbourg. They talk politely, but eventually Guy asks her to leave. She drives off, and Madeline and his son return. We see Guy immediately regain his happiness. He isn’t just pretending to be happy, he’s genuinely happy with his life, and has moved on completely from Genevieve. It’s something of a happy ending for Guy.
I’ve been thinking about this film non-stop since I watched it. In fact, I almost didn’t want to watch a second movie after it, because I knew there was no way to compare to this one. In the future, I might give myself some freedom to do something like that, but I stuck with the structure this time.
The film is just so melancholy, but hopeful, and romantic. The cinematography is gorgeous, the acting is amazing, and the sing through aspect, which when you describe it sounds potentially off-putting, gives the film a charm that is undeniable. Catherine Deneuve, who plays Genevieve, is excellent. She is just wonderful to look at, and her acting is wonderful. She plays the naive, lovestruck teenager, and the final scene between her and Guy reveals a more grown up version of the same person. The entire cast is excellent. Nino Castelnuovo, who plays Guy, also manages to go on a journey with us as we watch him go from idealistic young man with dreams, to the dread of being forced into the military, continuing on to a bitter man returning, having lost the things that were important to him, to the redeemed man, getting his life back on track after loss.
I’m just so charmed by every aspect of this film. I feel like I was transported to a fantastic world for 90 minutes, where I got to experience the challenges and triumphs of this group of people. I will definitely be watching this film again.
Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984)
This film focuses on a world on the edge of destruction. A thousand years after the industrial society collapsed, plants and insects began taking over large parts of the world. These plants released toxic gases, and were called the Sea of Decay. In this world, large nations are fighting over the remaining land. And the Valley of the Wind is caught in the middle. Nausicaa is the princess of this valley, and when a war ship from one of the nations crashes with a precious cargo, the valley becomes the focal point of the fighting. Nausicaa must find a way to save her village from the other nations, and the giant insects they are using as weapons.
This film reminds me a lot of another film we’ve covered here, Princess Mononoke. Both have a strong environmental message, and both involve fantastical worlds populated by creatures which threaten the human way of life, but only because their space has been encroached on. In addition, both films feature a small pocket of society that is more primitive, and is attempting to stay that way while more modern forces are pressuring them to change. In both films, these forces meet in a climactic battle for supremacy.
So the film felt very familiar, but what it has going for it is the animation and world building. This film came out in 1984. For reference, here’s a scene from An American Tail, a film that came out 2 years after Nausicaa:
Now look at the trailer for Nausicaa (ignoring the voiceover):
Nausicaa looks like it came from a different planet. The animation, character design, and world are so much more compelling. It’s so detailed and unique, and it completely blew everything else from the time period out of the water. This is a film with a serious vision.
The story is a bit meandering, but no more so than any Miyazaki film. He likes to set things up and get people comfortable in the world before really digging into the story. In the setup here, we see Nausicaa exploring. She finds a shell of an Ohm, a giant insect who appear to be the leaders of the insect world. She plans to harvest it for resources when she hears shots. She goes to help, and discovers Lord Yupa, a mentor of sorts, being chased by an Ohm. Here we see a special ability that Nausicaa possesses. She is able to calm these giant creatures, in this case, saving Lord Yupa.This is an ability that she will show throughout the film, and will become essential.
That evening, at the village, a giant warship from the Tolmekians flies over, far too low. It appears to be crashing. Nausicaa tries to guide them in, but sees a massive amount of insects covering their front windows. She knows they must have angered the insects. When the ship crashes, Nausicaa finds a woman in chains in the wreckage. She claims she is the princess of Pejite, a rival nation. Then she dies.
In the wreckage, the villagers also find a giant cocoon. Lord Yupa tells of a legend of giant warriors that used to roam the land. He believes this might be the one that was buried under Pejite. The villagers are digging through the wreckage when the Tolmekians arrive to take back their prize, which they stole from the Pejite’s.
The film gets a bit complicated here as the valley is subjugated while the Tolmekians attempt to hatch the warrior. Their leader takes Nausicaa and some of her people back to their homeland, but they are attacked by the Pejite’s and crash into the sea of decay. Nausicaa finds herself saving the Pejite soldier who attacked them, who it turns out is the Princess’s brother. Here she learns that the sea of decay actually has benefits to humanity, by filtering the water they drink, and eventually that the Pejite plan to provoke an insect attack on her valley, attacking the Tolmekians, and destroying the giant warrior they are hatching.
This all comes to a head in the valley, where the villagers have begun to fight back and are holed up in an old ship as a defensive structure. The Tolmekians manage to raise the giant warrior, just as the Ohms are getting close. Nausicaa is right in the middle of all of it, and after the giant warrior essentially melts, she gives up her life to stop the Ohms.
However, the Ohms surround her and resurrect her using some power we’ve seen earlier in the film. Giving us some hope that the Ohms and humans can begin to understand each other and live together.
The story in the film is better than my explanation lets on, but it still not the strong point of the film. The strong point is the amazing world that Miyazaki has created. The animation is excellent. The human characters are fairly standard anime models, but the costumes are particularly interesting. Especially the costumes the characters use to explore the Sea of Decay. I know this is based on a manga series in Japan, so the characters likely were pulled from that. But they were brought to life by Miyazaki and his team and it is exceptional work.
The story from my perspective is interesting, but still kind of strange. I imagine to someone from Japan the themes would have a greater impact, but for me, it all seems a little off. I’m sure part of this is that as I mentioned, Miyazaki’s later film Princess Mononoke feels so similar thematically and plot wise, that this one didn’t have much new to offer me from that perspective. Which is paradoxical, because this film came out more than a decade before Princess Mononoke.
But the animation saves this one, and makes it essential.
The Double Feature
I went into this with two films I’d never seen before, and didn’t really know a ton about. As far as a pairing, this one doesn’t really work at all. Both are great films, but they just don’t line up at all. It was fine, but I don’t think I can draw really compelling parallels between these two films.
Still, watching two great movies back to back will never be a bad idea, so there are no victims here.
Classes started this week. Summer is officially over. Some really awful things happened to me this summer, and some really nice things happened. I don’t know if they even out or not. But the best thing that happened is that I found the joy in my life again, which I’d lost at the beginning of the summer. It’s really gratifying to be able to feel that way again.
So I’m going to make a small change to the schedule. This is the last post that will appear on a Monday. I’m going to move posting days to Wednesdays, or perhaps Fridays. What this will let me do is take the weekend to actually watch the films, and then spend more time writing about them. Right now, I’m usually forced to watch movies Friday night no matter what so I can write on Saturday and Sunday. This feels rushed to me. By moving posting day to mid or late week, then I can watch movies on either Saturday or Sunday, when I have more time, and then write some during the weekend, but during the evenings. I think that this will really improve my writing, and let me edit more.
So expect posts on Wednesdays, but I might push it to Friday some weeks. But we’ll still be able to keep things on a weekly schedule.
Now for next week’s films. I’m tempted to go right back into Demy, because I loved this week’s film so much. But we’ll give him a break. I want to get a sharper focus on animation. I’ve only done Miyazaki films so far, but the world of animation is so rich and interesting to me, I think it’s worth spending an entire week on it.
So next week’s films will be:
David Hand – Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
John Lasseter – Toy Story (1995)
These films represent the start of two different eras of animation. Snow White is the first full length feature animated film. And Toy Story is the first full length feature computer animated film. Both important milestones.
It also makes a bit of a mess for my notations here. As in the early days of animation, the role of ‘director’ wasn’t really considered the same as a film director. So people think of Walt Disney as the man behind Snow White, but there are actually six different people credited as a director. I’ve selected David Hand, who was the supervising director, to note with this film. I might change that after doing some more research this week though.
But it should be a fun set of films to watch. See you next week.