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Gender Roles in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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by Arya Dixit

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy), was met with mixed reviews when the film premiered in 1964, during the French New Wave movement, but has steadily grown in both popularity and appreciation for its timeless, artistic vision. In Umbrellas, Demy infuses his cinematography with a fairy-tale-like quality. The musical numbers, bold use of colors, and choreographed movements make the visuals and storytelling dream-like. Fairy tales come with stereotypes: the audience expects happy endings, an other-worldly, pure romance, a knight in shining armor who wins over the girl he loves, and the girl who slowly grows to love him back. Similarly, in Hollywood cinema, as Backes states: “everything was larger than life. From the large scale sets, soaring visuals, and grandiose love that always ended with everything in its place”. Demy manages to break almost all of these preconceived notions of fairy-tale (and Hollywood rom-com) cinema and brings to light the inherent class structures, gender roles and expectations, and the reality of romance without losing the brilliancy and charm of a dreamy world. He carefully uses settings, colors, and dialogue to work together and illustrate the complexities of society, especially when gender norms come into play.

The film begins with an overhead shot of choreographed movements of people and umbrellas across the screen while the opening credits are displayed. The music and the vibrant, ornamental umbrellas moving in formations set the tone for the film, and the audience can see that this is a carefully curated artificial world where aesthetic beauty and realism complement each other. The first setting shown is the garage where Guy (played by Nino Castelnuovo) works; the use of vibrant blue-colored locker rooms establishes this as Guy’s domain; a workplace full of cars, elbow grease, and pictures of women in bikinis inside the lockers further sets this up as a male-centric space. However, the dialogue and singing clashes with these notions of masculinity. The men talk about going to the opera and dancing with enthusiasm, places of art that are generally associated with femininity. On the flip side, he sets up the Umbrella store as a feminine-centered space: it is owned by a woman, the red and pink colors of the store universally represent femininity, and the audience sees Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) for the first time inside this store. However, while Genevieve looking out the window is reminiscent of most fairy-tale stories where the princess looks out at her knight from her high tower, Demy subverts this fantastical trope, by making Genevieve run out to greet Guy instead of the other way around. This might be considered too overt and unlady-like in a fairy-tale universe, yet Demy uses this to project a more realistic and gender-progressive depiction of Genevieve as being unabashed, bold, and unprescribed to gender expectations.

 Throughout the film, Demy sets up gendered spaces and creates paradoxes within them. He uses color to his advantage to add further nuance to these instances. There are two notable sequences of ‘color swap’: The first comes when Guy wears a pink shirt instead of his usual blue when he goes to the opera, followed by a night of dancing. This could be Demy’s way of breaking down masculinity and illustrating how Guy manages to fully embrace his feminine side when he enters these traditionally “feminine” spaces. Later on, Genevieve wears a blue dress instead of her usual pink aesthetic on the day she meets Guy at the garage and then goes into his room, both previously established as masculine spaces. Demy might be using these events to show the duality of gender within both Genevieve and Guy, or their potential to embrace these different sides of them. These color swaps and subsequent entering of gendered spaces are too coincidental to be glossed over, especially in a film that has so thoughtfully curated both the wardrobe of the characters and the aesthetics of their spaces.

Demy’s clever use of dialogue and situational coincidences are most visible in 00:07:41 when Genevieve’s mother asks a customer: “do you know exactly what you’d like?”, and behind her we see Genevieve turn to look at Guy through the window. With this subtle visual image, he establishes Genevieve as a woman who knows her mind and her feelings, unlike common depiction of women in love as being confused, shy, or reserved. Not only does Demy subvert conservative ideas of femininity through Genevieve, but he also presents Guy as someone who is far from the “ideal” of masculinity. He is shown to be nervous about his date with Genevieve, and not an over-confident, haughty pillar of masculinity who believes he can win over any girl. 

When Guy and Genevive have one of their most romantic moments, the setting is anything but romantic. They are on the docks, wet and grimy. The couple doesn’t talk about wild, romantic fantasies but about buying a gas station and ways to support each other financially. While their romance is dream-like, it’s grounded in reality, and is felt deeply and not superficially: “you’ll smell like gasoline all day” Genevieve sings, but immediately follows up this unromantic notion with “It’ll be heaven!” (00:14:37). The interplay of the unromantic setting and dialogues clashes with the romantic quality of the music and choreography to show the romantic in the unromantic, the beauty in the mundane. Later on, Mr. Cassard (Marc Michel) tells Genevieve that they will bring up the baby together in this exact same place as well, which is a pivotal point in Genevieve’s life that convinces her to marry him. Demy shows two different kinds of romance here, neither one more ideal or grounded in reality than the other. He shows the complexity of love and lovers, and how the situations in the real world can change people’s ideals and realities. 

As the film progresses, Demy explores financial constraints through Genevieve and her mother (Anne Vernon). By showing the financial struggles of a mother and daughter alone, Demy explores the financial independence of the women, while also showing the discrepancies in opportunities they face due to their gender. When Genevieve offers to find a job in order to support herself and her mother, her mother’s sarcastic remark (“at the post office or city mall?”) shows how the fear of social perception and judgment can keep women away from working.  Genevieve’s mother, in all her carefully assembled red dress and pearl necklace, is the authority figure in Genevieve’s life, but at the same time, is prescribed to conservative gender norms. Through the clashes between the two, Demy depicts the dissonance between the two ideas of womanhood and also illustrates the changing times. As Cox points out, this is presenting “a multi-generational film about pragmatism versus the optimism and naivety of youth”. While the mother thinks getting a job could look bad for a young woman, Genevive sees it as a way to be independent and support her family. Her mother wants Genevieve to get married so she can be socially accepted, but Genevieve wants to be faithful to her own feelings and wants to do things as she sees fit. This clashing of views and actions between mother and daughter further addresses the complexities of generationally-propagated gender expectations.

Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), the diamond merchant, could be the modern knight in shining armor in this film. He comes to the rescue when the women are in dire need by buying the mother’s jewelry. Yet, he claims outright that “he’s not a philanthropist”, and that he is not coming to rescue because he’s chivalrous or because they seem like damsels in distress. And while he does win the girl in the end, it is unromantic and not really fairy-tale like. Genevieve is pregnant and has next to no prospects. And yet, Mr. Cassard’s acceptance of her is a huge step toward gender progressiveness. Society’s view, that women should be ridiculed for getting pregnant out of wedlock, is countered in the movie by Mr. Cassard’s progressive attitude. He marries her because he loves her, regardless of her social standing or her sexual history. This radical choice in normalizing a women’s sexual experiences and romantic relationships is a huge step toward breaking down gendered barriers, especially for a film made in 1964. 

Mr. Cassard’s character is also an ally for gender equality and female autonomy. Throughout the film, Mr. Cassard assures Genevieve’s mother that “Genevieve is free” (00:53:55) and that “Genvieve will decide for herself” (00:54:31). Demy further accentuates Genevieve’s autonomy by letting her make the choice when she finds the bean in her food, which means she gets to pick her king. However, Genevieve also understands she “[has] no other choice” but to pick Mr. Cassard. Demy gives her the choice, even if it is a choiceless matter. He depicts her helplessness in this situation, a situation where due to her pregnancy, society is unaccepting and unsympathizing, and her only chance to gain back some semblance of control or independence is to get married. Demy manages to convey autonomy and at the same time illustrate the lack of choice for women in a demanding, judgemental, and unequal society.

At the end of the film, Demy spends some time exploring the intricacies of masculinity through Guy who has just returned from the Algerian war to find out that Genevieve has left him for another man. Demy conveys the emasculation he feels by showing how he has become incompetent in his role as a mechanic, a masculine job that he was flourishing at before. Through Guy, Demy confronts masculine gender roles that are subtly interconnected; his failure as a lover is seeping into the other areas of life, and the film seems to be making a commentary on how these gender roles that are internalized could fall apart when one aspect of the man’s life fails. Or, of course, his incompetence could be a result of war trauma, the difficulty in transitioning from war to back to reality, or a depression triggered by the loss of his beloved Genevieve. However, the consistent gender commentary underlying the film suggests that the loss of Genevieve is more than just losing a lover, but also a sense of self that is interlaced with being assured of one’s masculinity.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg confronts these complex issues of gender roles in society, and such “distasteful truths are made palatable by blending them into the visible feast” of colorful umbrellas, wardrobes, and aesthetic spaces (Baumgarten). Demy’s film is insightful and wonderfully artificial and real at the same time. It’s no wonder that this movie continues to be appreciated and talked about in classrooms 50 years after it first came out.

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