Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg] (1964)

There aren't a lot of definitions of "Christmas movies" that would include this, and I'm not about to claim otherwise. Despite that, I wanted to share a few thoughts for a couple reasons. First, this is an incredibly important and influential movie, which naturally makes me inclined to loosen my criteria. It's also a foreign film (French, if it wasn't clear from the title), which means it's providing us with at least a little insight into how another culture views the holiday season. Most importantly, while it only contains two relatively brief holiday sequences, one of those uses Christmas in a fairly unusual way, which - unless I miss my guess - reflects back on American Christmas movies. More on that later.

The film is a colorful musical drama about a couple torn apart by a combination of forces beyond their control and their own decisions. It's notable for its operatic approach - although the music is fairly modern (or modern for 1964 musicals), every line of dialogue in the film is sung, which is extremely unusual for the genre.

The story centers on a young couple, Guy and Geneviève, who consider their relationship to be getting serious, despite the disapproval of Geneviève's mother. Their plans of starting a life together are interrupted by Guy getting drafted into the Algerian War. On their last night together, Guy convinces Geneviève to sleep with him, which results in a pregnancy. She tells him in a letter, but his responses are infrequent, leaving her uncertain where they stand.

Meanwhile, Geneviève's mother's umbrella store is going through hard times. They get some help from Roland, a kindly diamond merchant, who buys some of their jewelry after a local jeweler is unwilling to help. Roland visits them on a number of occasions, and on Epiphany he expresses his desire to marry Geneviève, who's torn between her feelings for Guy and her concern for the future of her child. She eventually decides to tell Roland she's pregnant and, if he still wants to be with her, accept his proposal. Much to her surprise, he's both understanding and eager to raise the child as their own. The two are married soon after.

The movie then jumps ahead almost a year to when Guy returns from the war to find his fiance has married and moved away. He reluctantly returns to his old job at a garage, but his heart isn't in the work and he soon loses the job. Meanwhile, his aunt (who essentially raised him like a mother) is dying. Her caretaker, Madeleine, has always had a crush on Guy and shames him out of his rut after his aunt dies. Guy uses his inheritance to purchase a garage of his own (a dream he'd discussed with Geneviève at the beginning) and marries Madeleine.

We then jump ahead about five years to find them successful and getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Madeline leaves to take their kid shopping while Guy finishes up at the garage. And of course Geneviève drives in with her kid to fill up her car.

She hadn't meant to go to Guy's garage - she didn't even know he owned one. She leaves her kid in the car and goes in to talk with him. Their interaction is fairly quick, all things considered. There are no accusations or apologies, though it's clear Guy never entirely forgave her. She tells him the name of her daughter: Françoise, a name they'd discussed. He doesn't tell her that his son is named, François. He also chooses not to meet his daughter.

Geneviève asks if he's happy, and he replies that he is. She leaves, his family returns, and they start playing and celebrating, implying that Guy really is happy despite how shaken he seemed interacting with Geneviève.

The movie ends there, so we never really get a sense of how her life turned out, though presumably she isn't doing too bad. Still, the fact the last section focuses more on closure for Guy slightly undermines the first compliment I'm going to give this film: this never moralizes or judges its leads. It presents them as flawed, but it's consistently sympathetic towards their predicaments, choices, and reactions.

But the movie's main strength comes from its visuals: this looks incredible. The shots are meticulously planned and executed, with absolutely iconic sequences throughout.

If there's a weak point, it's that the characters aren't all that complicated or particularly likable. I don't think that's a deal-breaker - the point isn't so much to like them as understand them - but it does place a limit on how invested the viewer is likely to become.

Now let's talk Christmas, since it's at least ostensibly the reason we're all here. As I said at the start, I don't really consider this a Christmas movie. However, I do think it's in a sort of conversation with Christmas movies. To be specific, unless I'm misinterpreting, I think the movie is in part a response to Holiday Inn.

Holiday Inn, of course, is set over the span of a year, with each song jumping forward to the next holiday. It tells the story of a couple who fall in love, run into hardships, and overcome their differences to rekindle their relationship at Christmas.

This at least starts with a similar structure, beginning in November, then jumping forward to January. After that, there's a series of time jumps of a month each, until this pattern is interrupted again to bring us to March of the following year.

The movie ends in December, the month it originally skipped over. It's years later, but there's a sense of the movie coming full circle as it brings the two leads back together, if only briefly. We see them struggle with conflicting emotions at the others' presence, before ultimately going their separate ways. In the scheme of things, their romance wasn't meant to last, and the audience - as well as the characters - are left to wonder whether that's for the best.

The time jumps at once reflect those in Holiday Inn, while also essentially shattering the structure by leaping years and skipping over time, ultimately arriving at Christmas, a moment American movies had been invoking as a symbol of reconciliation, long past the point that would have been possible.

It makes for a poignant resolution and a powerful image. It also serves as a refutation of the same kind of idealized romance the musical it resembles holds up.

On top of that, the Epiphany sequence also provides a glimpse into a celebration on the twelfth day (okay, technically night) of Christmas, as well as a variation on the king cake tradition in which guests search for a bean hidden in a cake, and someone is symbolically crowned king. Geneviève finds the bean, and - by virtue of Roland being the only man present - must select him as her king.

Side note: do I even need to point out that a somewhat absurd number of names in this appear to be referencing Arthurian mythology? I'm not entirely sure why, aside from stories of love from afar being a dime a dozen in those tales, but it's certainly fascinating. I don't seriously think there's anything too complex at play, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't part of me tempted to argue it's an allusion to The Green Knight, which was also set over the course of a year and ended with the Christmas holidays. Again, I don't actually believe that was the intent, but it's kind of fun to think about.

I also won't subject you to a Freudian interpretation of the fact Geneviève filled her car up at Guy's gas pump, and - for the record - I actually think that *was* intentional on the part of the filmmakers.

At any rate, this is an impressive movie with incredible visuals and a highly unusual approach to its musical elements. I should also add that this is technically the second part of a sort of trilogy of movies tied together with recurring characters, but I haven't seen the other two and my understanding is they can be watched in isolation.

I certainly didn't feel like this was missing any important context. Obviously, this isn't for everyone - if you don't like musicals, old movies, or subtitles, you probably won't enjoy it. But for movie fans this one's highly recommended.

Just not necessarily as a Christmas movie.