From the Archives) Film Analysis: Oil Culture in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

This post was originally published on November 26, 2019.

By Siobhan Nelson

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical film, tells a brilliantly crafted story about the dichotomies of life—success and hardship, youth and maturity, love and heartbreak. Divided into three vignettes with each beginning in 1957, 1959, and 1963, the story centers on Guy Foucher, a mechanic at a local garage, and Genevieve Emery, a young woman who helps her mother run an umbrella shop. Guy and Genevieve’s story is ultimately one of star-crossed lovers who are kept apart by obligation to family, duty to country, and class expectations. Shortly into their romance, Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War and must leave Genevieve behind. When he returns, he finds that things are no longer the same and becomes deeply unhappy. Time passes, and Guy is able to find stability and success, which come in the form of running his own Esso gas station.

Amidst so much change, the only constant is the presence of oil; not necessarily oil itself but the culture of oil. Though The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is ultimately a tale of romance, it also serves as a point of reference for the role of oil in post-war French society. The narrative of oil within the film is in fact a romantic one, idealizing the perceived power that oil has in guiding ‘lost souls’ to piece their lives back together. The post-war setting of the film makes this hopeful message especially pertinent. Understanding the cultural and temporal contexts are key to realizing the importance of the references to oil throughout the film.

Oil in Cherbourg, France

The decision to set the film in Cherbourg, as opposed to any other French city, is particularly important. Cherbourg is located at the northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula and is a historically significant port city, connected to a global exchange of both tangible and intangible goods. The port was the site of the Battle of Cherbourg, which was part of the larger invasion of Normandy during World War II. Oil was necessary to facilitate almost every aspect of the war—from the transportation of goods and troops to running machines that manufactured weapons and other equipment.

Cherbourg, France. (Google Maps)

Oil in The Film

The film convincingly represents oil as a multifaceted thing. It can be glamorous with flashy cars and garage managers in their white coats, but it can also be dirty and at times dangerous (i.e. war). Class is a central theme in the film and the differences are established based on a character’s relationship to oil.

Roland Cassard, for example, is a wealthy jeweler who wears sleek suits and drives a Mercedes. Meanwhile, Guy repairs his car in an oil-stained jumpsuit. In a mere six years, however, Guy is able to shift from working as a mechanic to owning an Esso gas station. The gas station, which is called the “Escale Cherbourgeouise”, is a play-on-words to reflect his change in social status. Most basically, the name means “Cherbourgian Stopover” but the phrase can also be translated as “a bourgeois step up” (Rosenbaum 1996). In these clever ways, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg suggests that car and oil culture can act as a means of upward social mobility and as a beacon of hope for post-war French society.

Guy as a mechanic.
Guy in the process of opening his gas station.

The Role of Film

One may question why such a representation of oil would be important to the film. Many argue that the piece is simply a brilliant example of product placement for Esso. Others say that it depicts the Americanization of a small French town and the impact that globalization has on the physical and cultural landscape of a place (Rosenbaum 1996). And yet, I think it is important to look beyond the obvious visual references, the Esso signs and Mercedes cars, and examine the relationship that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg establishes with its viewers. While the story and imagery within the film are grounded in reality, the extent of the oil culture is arguably exaggerated. Records indicate that though one out of three people in the United States owned a car in 1961, in France, this number was only one out of eight (Ross 1995: 27). So why are cars and oil culture so prevalent in the movie? In her work titled Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Kristin Ross writes,

“In production, cars had paved the way for film; now, film would help create the conditions for the motorization of Europe; the two technologies reinforced each other. Their shared qualities- movement, image, mechanization, standardization- made movies and cars the key commodity- vehicles of a complete transformation in European consumption and culture habits.” (Ross 1995: 38)

Ross points to the back-and-forth dialogue that exists between cars and film, which I extend to oil culture and film. Though society has the power to influence how a film is created and what is shown, movies can also transform culture through its patrons. In the case of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, though cars were in fact an emerging phenomenon in France, their prominence in the film is amplified to emphasize the extent that oil culture can and will contribute to the rebuilding of French society.

In many ways, I think this is a much more powerful flow of influence. Films have the ability to transcend time and can be viewed for decades and centuries after they are made. For French citizens viewing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the 1960s, the work provided a hopeful image of post-war prosperity and success enabled by oil. For anyone sitting down to watch the film today, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues to provide valuable insight into one way that French oil culture was regarded at the time while doing so in a very lovely way.

The final scene.

About the Author: Siobhan is a first-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She is specializing in transportation planning and is interested in public transportation as a way to promote equity and improve community vibrancy. She received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, with a major in the Growth and Structure of Cities and a minor in Environmental Studies. In her free time, she enjoys listening to 80s music and baking cakes.

Featured Image: Still from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, dir. Jaques Demy.

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