A Love Letter to the Technicolor Interiors in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

A Love Letter to the Technicolor Interiors in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

The 1964 French film, which was one of Greta Gerwig’s main visual references for “Barbie,” is a master class in vibrant, patterned wallpapers and “more is more” decor.
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This essay is part of a collection of love letters celebrating personal design obsessions.

In an interview about his classic musical drama The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, French filmmaker Jacques Demy once said, "I wanted to make people cry—to think of their first love." The film, released 60 years ago this February, follows the brief, but all-encompassing romance between a young umbrella store clerk, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve, in her breakout role), and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a charming mechanic, in the coastal French town of Cherbourg before the couple are separated by war. Much of the action takes place in the titular umbrella shop owned by Geneviève’s mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), and their adjoining apartment on the second floor. For me, the film’s technicolor interior spaces—slightly surreal and full of whimsy—are something like a first love. They certainly evoke a deep yearning.

The star of each room is the wallpaper. Each space features its own busily patterned paper in impossibly rich colors—magentas, fuchsias, tangerine oranges, deep purples, forest greens. There’s the downstairs umbrella shop, with its bright-pink wallpaper and black cabinetry with gold trimming. On the walls and outside the shop’s large front windows, frilly umbrellas are suspended in the air like ballerina tutus or artfully splayed out like giant fans. It’s frivolous and ludicrous and wonderful.

Behind the storefront, there’s a back office of sorts. It’s a small space, but Madame Emery has enlivened it with the most daring of hues: for the wallpaper, deep-magenta flowers cover a sharp-orange backdrop, while the woodwork is painted red and purple. Upstairs, Geneviève’s room is decorated in innocent baby blues, pinks, and whites; her mother’s in deep, seductive reds and golds. Their dining room has a bit of everything, with its bubblegum-pink-and-dark-green striped wallpaper, pale-blue baseboard, and dinky antique wooden furniture.

Sometimes, the colors clash casually, almost carelessly; at others, they build upon each other, creating a sea of complementary patterns and hues. The director even worked with costume designer Jacqueline Moreau to ensure that the characters’ clothes worked in tandem with the wallpapers. In one scene in the pink-and-green dining room, for instance, Geneviève wears a pink sweater, while her mother dons a green coat. In another, the young umbrella store clerk wears a blue-and-pink floral dress that matches almost perfectly with her bedroom wallpaper.

I’m not alone in my love for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s technicolor universe. The film’s colorful sets influenced major blockbusters like La La Land and Barbie. In fact, Greta Gerwig cited The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as one of her main visual references for Barbie, saying that she tried to emulate "that layering of the colors and how you’d shoot five different shades of pink or red in one shot and not have it overwhelm anything, that you feel like there’s separation, but that it’s vibrant. Everything feels painterly."

There’s an easy French charm about Madame Emery and Geneviève’s umbrella shop and apartment, even with the almost aggressive use of color. Though, of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than those two characters actually living in it. As much as I would love to plaster daring prints all over my walls, I’m not sure I could pull it off. There’s an oddness, a boldness, and a real sense of romance to the way the spaces are decorated. "The day before you were born, I was up on a ladder, changing the wallpaper in the shop," Madame Emery says proudly to her daughter at one point, evidencing a real commitment to cultivating her own environment. Maybe that’s why the interiors are impossible not to fall in love with.

Toward the end of the film, when Guy returns to Cherbourg after serving in the French Army, he finds that Geneviève and her mother’s umbrella shop and apartment have been sold. The wallpaper once lovingly put up by Madame Emery has been stripped, the walls whitewashed. The space is being turned into a charmless, but functional launderette. The kaleidoscopic umbrella shop and apartment is now just a memory, like the youthful, hopeful romance Guy and Geneviève shared. Every time I watch it, it’s enough to make me cry.

Top photo by Mary Evans/AF Archive/Everett Collection

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