"LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG "
Jacques Demy's ground breaking musical film "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), in which Demy's dialogue is sung throughout to Michel Legrand's music, tells the story of a troubled romance between a young shop assistant (Catherine Deneuve) and a garage mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo). It takes place in Cherbourg at the time of the Algerian War.
The film was made in 1964 and Demy realised, when he first made the film, that the colour process would deteriorate with time. Indeed by the eighties, when he regained the rights, the brilliant paintbox colours of the prints had faded, making a planned re-release impossible. But Demy had taken the precaution of insisting on three black and white prints, each corresponding to one of the primary colours, being made and stored, from which a new colour negative could be reconstructed. Demy however died in 1990, just as his dream of restoring the film was about to become a reality and the task was taken over by his widow, Agnès Varda.
Varda is of course a renowned film maker in her own right, the first exponent of "auteurism" with her debut film "La Pointe Courte" in 1954, in which renowned actor Philippe Noiret made his film debut and which later earned her the title of "Grandmother of the New Wave". For thirty two of the now fifty one years of her film making career she was Demy's partner and then wife. They married in 1962. It is a relationship she describes as one of "fighting and loving, of passion". It was also a relationship between two professionals, whose mutual love of film helped to create their strong personal bond.
Restoring "Les Parapluies" was though a costly and time consuming task for Varda, at a time when she was nursing Demy through his final illness and completing "Jacquot de Nantes", her fictionalised film based on her husband's childhood.
"There was a lot of paperwork", she remembers. "We found the money, I went to London and to Rome to learn about the process. The principle is simple but the execution is complicated. Then we had to re-do the sound and ask Michel Legrand to do the re-mix. It took me four months in the laboratory alone, day after day, I thought I would never finish. But now it is done, it is beautiful and it is the exact film he shot, the way the colours were on set."
The restored film opened in Paris in the theatre, where "Umbrellas" first played in 1964, was then seen throughout France and in 1996 opened to packed houses in New York , after which it came to the UK .
"Umbrellas" was ground breaking in the sixties not just in its use of colour but also as the first totally sung film musical, long before "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar". It was Demy's "opera populaire", his contemporary version of the operettas he had loved as a child. At the time many critics dismissed it as gaudy and sentimental. By 1996 however they were beginning to appreciate the criticism of both war and bourgeois values, which is implicit in the story.
"The American press said they understand the film for the first time", says Varda. "There is a violence in the fact that the bourgeois mother is ruining her daughter's life, that the Algerian war has broken their happiness. I think perhaps the vivid colour helps you see the violence."
There are also poignant personal memories for Varda in the film, particularly in the final scene, in which the daughter born of the lovers' affair is played by the Demys' daughter Rosalie, and the other child by Legrand's son.
At the time I met her in late 1996 prior to the film's London opening, Varda, a petite, bright eyed and highly energetic woman then in her late sixties, had completed two documentaries since Demy's death about his work, the second of which revisits the world twenty five years on of another of his musical films, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967). This was Demy's very French version of the American musical genre, which Varda has also restored along with her own 1965 film "Le Bonheur". In 1994 she also made her own personal celebration of one hundred years of cinema, "Les 100 et 1 nuits", a feature starring "all the 'des" as she puts it, in which actors such as Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu visit Michel Piccoli as Monsieur Cinema, to help him revive his fading memory. Also in 1994, in the midst of the "Umbrellas" restoration work, she published her autobiography "Varda par Agnès".
In 2000 she completed the highly acclaimed documentary "Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse" (The Gleaners) about people, who live by foraging and its sequel a year later "Deux Ans Après" (Two Years After), in which she revisited the subjects of the first film. In the last three years she has also made a number of shorts, including "Cinevardaphoto", a trilogy of three meditative cinematic essays inspired by still photographs. She runs her own production company Cine Tamaris, which was founded on a co-operative basis in 1954 for "La Pointe Courte" and revived in the seventies, since when it has produced most of her films and the subsequent DVDs of them. And she is currently working on a new DVD of her 1961 film "Cleo de 5 à 7" (Cleo from 9 to 5) . Now seventy seven, Agnès Varda is obviously still a highly energetic and creative force.
" I was a pioneer and a pioneer is always somebody who looks for adventure. I've done a lot of cinematic adventure and I still see myself as "une tete chercheuse" - a searching mind, because the film industry needs to have people trying new things, not just repeating themselves. I always wait to be sure my mind and my energy are oriented. I work out of inspiration. I don't do deals, do business. I don't even make a career you know. I make films."