Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From Jacques Demy to Charles Darwin in nine paragraphs

After the drama and violence of yesterday's post, here's something more soothingly emotional to celebrate the end of the old, as well as the beginning of the new year. We all deserve it, for 365 days is a long time and not all of those days were happy. Still, all told, 2008 was a good 'un for us (which is why we are in absolute agreement with Harald Martenstein, who is reluctant to let the old year go over at Die Zeit).

One of the several movies that we managed to watch during and after the holidays was Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. I think that there is nothing in the history of cinema comparable to Demy's "films in song", which differ from the characteristic climactic musical outbursts of your ordinary (Hollywood) musical in so far as in them all dialogue is sung.

Les Parapluies is unashamedly bittersweet, as this crucial encounter between Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) -- who works in her widowed mother's twee umbrella shop -- and her boyfriend Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) -- a car mechanic who has just received his draft notice -- documents:

Now, that draft notice is nothing to joke about, as the film is set during the Algerian War, and indeed Guy later on ends up in North Africa, where he witnesses the death of his comrades and is wounded himself. The lovers' apparently vehement reaction is therefore not entirely inappropriate.

What follows, however, is not so much tragic (in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way) as sobering, in fact almost banal: while Guy is in Algeria the lovers drift apart, even though Geneviève is pregnant with his child. Her matchmaking mother, acting on the principle that time is a great healer, exploits the growing distance between the lovers (which is not least due to Guy's perfunctory correspondence). She encourages her daughter to marry a wealthy diamond merchant who, earlier in the film, fell for Geneviève at first sight. His virtue and devotion is signalled by his willingness to marry the pregnant girl despite her predicament. Guy returns from the war, briefly sinks into deepest despair but is jolted from this period of drunken debauchery by the death of his aunt (who conveniently leaves him all her belongings). He comes to terms with his loss of Geneviève, marries Madeleine, a young, sensible (though pretty) woman who has been adoring him quietly for a long time, and uses his inheritance to set up his own business.

Years later, Guy and Geneviève have a chance encounter at his petrol station:

The film is fantastically colourful and charmingly camp, but far from a poorly developed sentimental tear-jerker, as has been claimed. There is something uncannily true about Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, all technicolor frivolity notwithstanding. Yes, this is a silly boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story but, hey, don't we all know that song?

What is most striking, however, is the calculating ruthlessness with which nearly all characters act in the film -- in a way that reminded me of far more naturalistic literary contexts, novels by Thomas Hardy or George Gissing, for example. Upward mobility is a major theme for Demy, in whose candy-coloured universe of cooing and crooning love is a very fragile thing indeed, always overshadowed by the powerful influence of human self-interest. Don't be fooled by Geneviève's pastel-coloured twinsets and ballet flats -- in evolutionary terms, the woman is a doe-eyed predator not unlike Elfride Swancourt in Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes. The mild-mannered Madeleine, too, follows a successful mating pattern of her own, unconsciously turning her passive self-abandonment into a costly signal of her general worthiness. Guy's love for her, finally, seems to be determined by a -- ultimately, I guess, reproductive -- pragmatism that is no less self-interested than his previous despondency.

Which all makes Les Parapluies of Cherbourg the perfect film to ring in the Darwin Year (and I don't mean this in a spiteful way at all). I'm convinced that it's healthy and sobering to remind ourselves at every opportunity that our grand gestures, noble emotions and high-falutin' ideals typically have very humble roots: the very basic needs and interests of the human animal, of which we, sadly, often fail to render ourselves aware.

To quote the man himself:

[W]e must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man [1871]).

On that note: have a good Hogmanay, ye animals. May your 2009 be happy, healthy and humble!

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