Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg are films that are essentially under the genre of musical. Being under a genre, means that there are certain characteristics that are to be expected from these films. While Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! excessively and parodic use of these characteristics, Jacques Demy, who rose during the French New Wave, albeit he does not consider himself as part of the movement, attempts to subverts the fairytale musical genre through Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, in terms of romantic love story narrative. These two films were released after the golden age of musicals in which the period then was when musicals have been outmoded. Jim Ridley acknowledges Demy’s ingenious production of a musical film that is not as extravagant as Hollywood musicals in the 1960’s, rather “reducing its scale to something recognizably human” by using a continuous dialogue in song, in lieu of spontaneous, huge production numbers. Moulin Rouge! is a postmodern pastiche of the musicals throughout history, which explains the parody and the excessive use of generic musical characteristics, such as the spontaneous production numbers and the cheesy love story. The similarity that ties these two films together is the theme of Love, featuring a love triangle. In both films, there are two heterosexual couples in love with one another, while a third wheeler, almost usually the antagonist, also wants to get the girl. In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, the portrayal of love takes a more realistic approach, whereas the conventional love story of love overcoming all is portrayed in Moulin Rouge!, though both films technically have a tragic ending. Les Parapluies tries to revive the musical genre by producing an unconventional twist, while Moulin Rouge! acts as a pastiche to the typical love story in a musical film.
According to Rick Altman’s typology of musical film subgenres, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg would fall under the category of fairy-tale musicals despite not ending in a happily-ever-after. Although the context of the film is more melodramatic than a conventional fairy-tale, the film still features a fairy-tale structure in its narrative. From Altman’s typology, the fairy-tale musical is essentially based on the romance between the “prince” as well as the “princess” in their imaginary “kingdom”, thereby transcending the reality. In this case, the “princess” would be Genevieve, the bourgeois shopkeeper of her mother’s umbrella boutique, and the “prince” is Guy, the handsome but poor mechanic. The imaginary “kingdom” they live in is Cherbourg. The fairy tale feature is present in its plot, when Genevieve awaits for her one true love, Guy who is sent to war in Algeria, to return to her, and have their happily ever after. The obstacle that they have to overcome is the pressure of society that is represented by Madame Emery, the mother of Genevieve, whom insists that she marries Roland, a wealthy businessman, instead for the money and the social status, and forget about her ideal “prince”. Regarding Roland, although he is seemingly the antagonist of the story, he is not the archetypal antagonist as he does not try to break up Genevieve and Guy purposefully. Rather, critics propose that he is actually another prince, a “socially recognisable Prince Charming” who would rescue Genevieve “from social scorn and her mother’s disapproval”. It is this secondary fairy-tale narrative, where Genevieve fails to wait for her one true love, Guy, and ends up marrying Roland, that wins. However, as aforementioned, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg leans towards the melodramatic side as it doesn’t completely follow fairy tale musical conventions since Genevieve and Guy do not get her happily ever after. The film follows their story, which unfortunately leads to an end. She doesn’t reunite with her true love and is forced to marry someone out of convenience. It is the sense of loss and unfulfilled romantic desires of Guy and Genevieve that results in the melodramatic essence of the film. On that note, film critic Anne Duggan suggests that “Demy sets into motion a dialectic in…The Umbrellas [of Cherbourg] between the utopian promises of the fairy tale and irrecoverable loss characteristic of melodrama to create films of disillusionment.” The “utopian promises” here refers to the promise of love overcoming all. Evident in the theme song of the film, “Je t’attenderai” that is sung in the coffee shop and the train station before they both go on separate ways, Genevieve makes the promise that she will wait for him and that she will not leave him. In a utopian fairytale, she would successfully wait for Guy and not succumb to her mother’s wishes to marry Roland. Nevertheless, following that line, she sings “Deux ans, non, je ne pourrai pas” and even after she sings she will wait for him for all her life at the train station, she sings “I can’t” repeatedly. This implies that although she wants to wait for Guy, she knows in her heart that she might not be able to do so. Later on in the film, ironically she realises that she can still live without Guy, telling her mother “I would have died for him. Why am I not dead?” At this point, Genevieve is convinced that it is better for her to marry Roland, especially with her mom insistence on marrying Roland as though she was selling him “like one of her umbrellas”. The mother tells Genevieve that “People only die out of love in movies”, alluding to the story’s realistic approach in portraying romantic relations, drawing a divide between the film and reality. Guy’s absence and lack of communication (except for the one letter) causes Genevieve’s memory of him start to fade. Ultimately, Genevieve marries Roland, and Guy marries Madeleine .
With the tragic ending, the film disillusioned this romantic American ideal when Genevieve does not marry her first “prince”, hence the melodramatic aspect creates a sense of reality.
On the other hand, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is a satirical pastiche to musical films throughout its history. It strictly follows the characteristics of a show musical genre in its structure. The film also makes exaggerated and excessive allusions to famous musical films, including Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. The love story in Moulin Rouge follows that of show musical sub-genre, in which the film’s plot revolves around the love story of a central couple. Interestingly, the moment when Satine and Christian fall in love is the moment just before Christian pitches the plot of the musical Spectacular! Spectacular! to the duke. According to Marsha Kinder, “the reflexive backstage rhetoric blatantly revels in the primacy of love as the musical’s only meaningful thematic and the film’s dominant moralising refrain”. Especially since the characters of the film repetitively mention that the story is about “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, but above all, Love” making them the children of the Bohemian Revolution. Similarly to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg , the film is primarily about a love triangle between Satine, a sought-after, alluring courtesan, who falls in love with Christian a “charming, impoverished writer” as Satine describes him., and the archetypal antagonist, The Duke, who is wealthy and possessive towards Satine. This musical film is also drawn to a melodramatic end as form of pastiche. The film starts off in a dramatic irony. Satine coughs out blood on a white handkerchief, foreshadowing her death at the end of the film. Christian, in a similar fashion as Genevieve, tells Satine that he can’t go on without her, which eventually leads to his despair and sadness before he starts writing his story, living up to the promise that he will tell their love story. However, unlike Guy and Genevieve, Christian and Satine, fulfil their love for one another as Satine successfully refuses to succumb to the Duke’s desire to sleep with her and ultimately sings a duet about unconditional love with Christian before her tragic death.
Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! are two romantic musical films produced after the pinnacle of musical films. While both films steers to a melodramatic ending, Demy uses a realistic approach to the somewhat fairy-tale structured love story in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, in order to disillusion the American ideal of the romantic couple established by Hollywood films. Whereas, Luhrmann’s over-the-top pastiche, Moulin Rouge! attempts to incorporate all the generic characteristics of classical musicals over history with the present pop culture to act as a tribute and maybe even revive the musical genre.
While the theme of both films is about everlasting love, as aforementioned, love does not ultimately succeed in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg because of Demy’s portrayal in realism to disillusion the American myth that love conquers all. But in Moulin Rouge!, love becomes everlasting thanks to the show-within-the-show aspect. Even though, Satine physically dies in the end of the film, she and Christian were still able to have a short-lived happy ending. He writes a book of the loves story, hinting that his book is the living story of their love and only through this means of story-telling does their love story last forever.
In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Demy uses what was the latest technology of that time in the film — Technicolour, commonly used to signify fantasy as opposed to reality. The use of technicolour plays an important role in the film, particularly in indicating the stages of the love story and representing the characters. Guy is known for using blue and green. Blue is associated with Guy. During their last moments together, Genevieve is holding a blue fabric, symbolising her holding on to Guy. Whereas Genevieve is associated with the colours of light pink and red. However, gradually throughout the film, the colour she is associated with changes depending on what is happening in her life.