‘The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg’, subtitled songs and how to enjoy musicals in a foreign language

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan,02 2018 11:24:11 IST

Among the great pleasures of a musical are the lyrics, especially when styled in the old-school Broadway mould. Take C’est moi from Camelot, the magnificent adaptation of the Arthurian legends by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). The song is sung by Lancelot, who’s setting out to be a knight of the Round Table, and it brings out his key qualities – that he’s French (hence that title) and vain (hence these words about his virtues):

C’est moi! C’est moi! I blush to disclose,
I’m far too noble to lie.
That man in whom
These qualities bloom,
C’est moi, c’est moi, ‘tis I.

I’ve never strayed
From all I believe;
I’m blessed with an iron will.
Had I been made
The partner of Eve,
We’d be in Eden still.

I love how delightfully pompous Lancelot is, and how clueless he is about this pompousness. I love the wordplay, the unpredictable rhymes: whom/bloom, believe/Eve, will/still. I love the dry if you say so, my Master expressions on his manservant’s face (the 3.02 mark in the video below). I understand what’s being sung, how it’s being sung, and the joy is of not just a musical but also a literary kind. It’s like enjoying ornately wrought prose – except in an audiobook form, and set to music.

Musicals in languages you do not know work very differently. We are reliant on subtitles, which are not always useful in capturing the literariness of the language. Unless you have someone of the calibre of Gregory Rabassa, whose translations introduced Gabriel García Márquez to the English-speaking world, and made us wonder what the original writing must have been like if the translation is so exquisitely filigreed. This level of subtitling is hard to find in cinema.

For this reason, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) is one of the most easily experienced foreign musicals.

As in opera, every line, every word is sung. (A YouTube comment under the trailer is hilarious: “I was 13 in 1964 when an aunt I’ll never forgive decided to take me to my first foreign film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was in French and entirely sung. For years, I thought ‘foreign’ films were those weird films where everybody sang everything.”) But the film’s language (i.e. “dialogue”) feels like casual conversation set to music, not like lyrics set to music.

There aren’t rhymes to be dazzled by, just commonplace constructions like this one by a solicitous suitor (“Maybe you need some rest”) or this one by a car mechanic (“The engine still knocks when it’s cold, but that’s normal”). This simplicity is the key to the film’s most famous piece of music, Michel Legrand’s love theme, which is played in a number of variations. In case you haven’t heard it, do familiarise yourself with its contours (an easy-listening version below).

Now, this following video shows the scene where the lovers part. (The film is about a star-crossed romance, but maybe you knew that already?) Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) has just learnt that Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) has been drafted and will be in Algeria for two years. “So we’ll have to talk about marriage later,” he says. But when she breaks down (her words set to the theme you just heard), he adds, “I want you to know that I think only of you. And I know that you will wait for me.”

In the Camelot number, the music took a backseat to the carefully chiselled lyrics. Here, it’s the reverse. Legrand’s swooning score lifts this prosaic exchange into the realm of intense emotion. Had the words been more stylized, more like lyrics, the outsider audience may not have felt this much (we’d be too busy reading the subtitles, trying to match the rhymes), but now it’s just the easiest of words, the most sublime music.

Which explains why the song sequence in the following clip doesn’t work for me. It’s from Peter Chan’s Perhaps Love (2005), choreographed by our own Farah Khan. Look at the words:

There are no faces of angels
Though these faces can bedazzle
The misery outside our windows
We’re all just ants in the ghetto
Got no rights to cry for sorrow

It sounds wrong, whether you look at it as a lyric (those rhymes!) or as just plainspoken words. Maybe Cantonese/Mandarin audiences responded better?

The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is something of a rarity, so most foreign-language musicals are a bit difficult to get into. Or let me put it this way: it’s difficult to get into them the way we get into musicals in languages we understand and need no subtitles for. Still, as a fan of cinema, these musicals can be fascinating. Take this following clip from Wir machen Musik (We Make Music, 1942), directed by Helmut Käutner. How else would we know what Germans watched at the height of WWII?

The model is clearly Hollywood – the staging isn’t that precise, but the exhilarating, go-for-broke gaudiness is every bit the same. And it helps that there are no subtitles; it’s just spectacle.

Even better is this clip from 20 Centimeters, Ramon Salazar’s tale of a preoperative male transsexual prostitute whose blackouts result in Dancer in the Dark-like musical reveries. The director said: “I met all the prostitutes during the two years I lived where the characters did... They were always optimistic and never wanted to have their life portrayed in a negative way. This inspired me and that is when I decided to contrast the horror of their real lives with beautiful and colorful music.”

And what better music for this situation than Queen’s I Want to Break Free? (Remember the original video, with a moustached Freddie Mercury in drag?) A musical we can follow with the subtitles, interspersed with songs we don’t have to “read,” which we can just feel: it’s the best of both worlds.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South) and Chief Consultant, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star

Updated Date: Jan 02, 2018 11:24 AM