The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Dir. Jacques Demy. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Anne Vernon, Nino Castelnuevo

Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Mohamed Ben Kassen

Guy (Castelnuevo) has bad news for Genevieve (Deneuve): he’s being sent to Algeria, and at sixteen she is certain that she will die waiting for him. At this moment, she has already conceived the child she will bear and give the name “Francoise,” or “Frenchwoman.” When it becomes clear to Guy on his return that she has not waited – that she has married another – he will in turn marry and name his child “Francois,” or “Frenchman.”

Ali La Pointe (Haggiag) has bad news for Halima (Fusia El Kader): they’re about to be bombed into oblivion by the French paratroopers who have hunted them down, the very last cell of the FLN. Their superiors and predecessors have either been captured or killed. Ali and his fellows understand that torture and shame will follow if they give themselves up (in shots by Pontecorvo which carry the holiness of martyrs, though that would hardly be a comfort to the four in the wall). And so, with a growing crowd coming up around Ali’s flat until it seems that half of the Algerians in the Casbah have come to bear witness to his death, the order is given and the martyrs are made.

Here are two films which, even after watching them, seem to have nothing in common. Demy rarely moves his camera in too close to his subjects, preferring long, wide shots which dizzy us with their sensational color at first before dimming, to show us something of the characters’ mood as if wallpaper was included in the pathetic fallacy. Even though Demy shot in Cherbourg, his settings look artificial, sort of a life-size Barbie city. Pontecorvo favors close-ups, quick cuts from face to face, and crowd scenes in which the camera is very much part of the crowd. His aesthetic was based on the newsreel, and his footage is in many ways fairly difficult to distinguish  from those grainy news items. Demy has trained actors and actresses in his film; Deneuve is still one of the world’s preeminent screen stars and celebrities. Pontecorvo has one trained actor in the entire movie: Jean Martin as Colonel Mathieu. Nothing could be more fantastic than a scene of Castelnuevo holding on to his bike in one hand and to Deneuve with his arm as they still move, without walking, presumably on some moving sidewalk or carried on some nimbus of love. Nothing could be more stunningly realistic than three women leaving their purses and baskets in public places, packed with homemade bombs which blow away French holiday-goers and businessmen.The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a romantic musical with an allusion to war. The Battle of Algiers is anti-colonialist propaganda with a brief, muted, and touching marriage scene. These opposing qualities make the two films an especially attractive double feature; their seeming lack of commonalities only serves to make the one obvious one they have – the war in Algeria – come to life with special significance, emphasizing the roles of absence in Umbrellas and presence in Battle.

In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, what is without makes the film go ’round. (To be sure, the second act of the film, focusing on Genevieve’s pregnancy and marriage to Roland Cassard [Marc Michel] is titled “L’absence.”) Aside from Guy being forced to go to Algeria, which forces a total shift in Genevieve’s worldview, just about everyone else in the film is forced to go without someone else. Roland tells Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) the sad story of the woman he loved whom he lost. Madame Emery, aside from being a widow, is on the edge of financial ruin. (I’m not an entrepreneur, but I seriously doubt that “shop that only sells umbrellas” is a viable business model. And Cherbourg gets precipitation below the national average!) When Guy comes home, it does not take long for his aunt (Mireille Perrey) to die. Madeleine (Ellen Farner), his aunt’s caretaker who has been keeping a torch for Guy since the beginning, has to manage his mental absence and near-breakdown once he comes home from the war only to find his amour married and his leg permanently wounded. (The limp comes and goes, really, but we know it’s there.) Madeleine, dressed in vivid orange symbolic of the color and light returning to Guy’s life in bits and pieces, begins to cry. Is it really me you want? she asks. Are you sure you’re over Genevieve?

In the film’s final scenes, set in the snowy December of ’63 (after the end of the war in Algeria), Genevieve shows up unexpectedly at Guy’s gas station. The black and white in that scene is controlled thoroughly; the night and the snow and Genevieve’s black car are highlighted by the brilliant white light of Guy’s sign. It’s very nearly anticlimactic; the two of them are cordial, Guy does not accuse Genevieve of anything, and mostly they focus their attention on Guy’s biological daughter. The film is layered with unsure feeling. Much of it is the tension of how Guy will receive Genevieve, and part of it is unfamiliarity; we haven’t seen the two of them together since 1957. Since the film is built around keeping the two apart, their reunion is like a first contact, and I’m not really sure it was necessary. I was much more invested in watching Genevieve recede into the distance from the point of view of Guy’s train, in watching her change her hair to cover her face as she grew more pregnant, in watching Guy quit his job in a tizzy, in watching Guy come home from a prostitute’s bed only to find that his aunt died in the night. The fallout from Guy’s absence is fascinating, but the archaeological work of putting the pieces back together for a few moments is less than scintillating.

Presence is, on the other hand, virtually always scintillating in The Battle of Algiers. Certainly the final few minutes, where the distinctive crescent and star flags come out for the first time, are a dynamic bunch of crowd scenes; none of them quite live up to the scene where Omar (Ben Kassen) steals a microphone and hides with it, shouting revolutionary messages to the assembled crowd, which ulalates and cries out so vociferously that one wonders how they held it in. (One crowd scene that’s unusual in the film is the one where Ali is about lynched by a rapidly formed mob of white people, ablaze at the way that he struck down a white man who tripped him for sport. Only a police officer, the one Ali was running from in the first place, stood between him and being ripped to shreds.) Yet apart from these more obviously choreographed pieces, the Casbah itself is shot in such a way that it cramps the viewer. From the first time we see it from great distance, we must compare it to the European quarter with its large buildings and wide boulevards. The Casbah seems disorganized, thrown on top of the modern buildings, although anyone who walks into a film called “The Battle of Algiers” should recognize the tactical advantage that fighting from such a warren gives to the insurgents. Every Algerian is somehow made larger from being in such a small space, and even the many nameless people shot from distance show the cramming of the Casbah. People appear on rooftops looking down into courtyards, stream out of bedrooms and kitchens. That feeling seems to carry over even outside of the Casbah. When a key leader of the FLN is arrested, he rides in the back seat of a car with Colonel Mathieu; even then, though he is a smaller man than his opposite number, he seems to loom large in the camera’s eye. And of course Pontecorvo’s last four martyrs to the cause are lit from below with light warm even in black and white, and piled into their crawl space together, they are the biggest people of all.

I think that in the end Pontecorvo uses absence more effectively than Demy uses presence, although the two of them are in vastly different situations. The sequence of absence that most speaks to me – indeed, the sequence that I found most engrossing altogether – is the aforementioned purse bombing. In one restaurant, a woman has put her purse down underneath the bar and has drunk enough of her Coca-Cola. Before, in that restaurant, the camera had focused on her almost exclusively, albeit with a politely lecherous man seated next to her. When she leaves, the purse is given a shot to itself, and then the camera goes haywire. Close-up shots of the clock. Of various customers, totally unaware of their impending death or maiming. Of the clock again. And then the explosion. There’s a fair bit of clucking about how even-keeled the film is (much of it centered on Morricone’s identical music for the dead on both sides), although all you have to do is look at the French government’s history of banning the movie when it came out to know where Pontecorvo and company stands. I found Pontecorvo’s camera, in search of any subject at all, in an urgent race to find any reason to stay the explosion, profoundly arresting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s