I like to imagine that Jacques Demy first thought up The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a direct response to Jean-Luc Godard's 1961 A Woman Is a Woman. That film, a splashy Technicolor Cinemascope musical, was also every inch a Godard film: amiably cynical, eager to tear itself apart and reveal all of the ways that its very concept, which the director famously summed up as "a neo-realist musical; that is, a contradiction in terms", was a charming but empty-headed lie. Possibly Demy - infinitely more romantic than Godard could ever conceive of being - was put out by his colleague's delight in writing off the romantic love story as essentially insincere, and wanted to prove him wrong. Or maybe it has nothing to do with any of that; maybe one night, Demy was sharing a late drink with Michel Legrand, and over the dim haze of cigarette smoke, Legrand confided that he desperately wanted to write a sung-through movie musical, and Demy leapt at the chance.

However it got to be there, the important part is that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg exists, and is one of the most apoplectic romances ever filmed. The plot is sheer boilerplate: in November, 1957, 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve at her all-time most luminous, sung by Danielle Licari) is in love with 20-year-old mechanic Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo, sung by José Bartel), but her mother (Anne Vernon, sung by Christiane Legrand) does not approve. Guy goes off to war in Algeria, and about the same time, Mme Emery begins to encourage wealthy jewel speculator Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, sung by George Blaness) to woo Geneviève, in no small part because of his willingness to keep her sagging umbrella shop afloat. By 1959, Geneviève, having given birth to Guy's child, has married Cassard and left Cherbourg, leaving a miserable Guy to choose between self-destruction, or Madeleine (Ellen Farner, sung by Claudine Meunier), the nurse to his ailing aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey, sung by Claire Leclerc), and the one beacon of light in his broken life.

A number of different factors raise this absurdly simple scenario to the level of highest excellence, but the chief among them is surely Michel Legrand's iconic score: one of the great composers in film history, and this must be his greatest achievement, if only for its breadth and ambition. Pilfering from the popular music of the '50s and early '60s, stealing the flavor of American gangster and noir film scores where it was appropriate - for this was a Nouvelle Vague project, after all! - and when all else failed, launching into a soaring Romantic melody, Legrand's score runs only a minute or two shorter than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg itself , and yet it only repeats motifs when it is absolutely justified or required by the narrative, and even in these repetitions the music is expanded or whittled down as necessary.

He even does this without creating any recognisable "numbers" as such: the film is mostly comprised of scene-long ariosos - that is, sung words that are more melodic than recitative but not nearly enough to be called songs. This is the only way it could have been scored, really, with the libretto consisting entirely of Demy's dialogue, written as a screenplay. Unadorned and workaday, the words could not withstand the "bigness" of a more standard musical, but the emotional, driving cues that Legrand uses are the perfect fit, even as the mere fact of scoring some of the words spoken within the movie can't help but feel peculiar; two mechanics talking about an engine, or a man poking his head into the umbrella shop looking for directions, all sung. It is verismo taken to its most absurd, but then, it was a French movie in 1964. That's just sort of what one did in those days, point out the absurdity of received artistic forms, even if one was as sincere as Jacques Demy.

The music is beautiful here, jarring there, playful yet over there; it is a slightly threatening undertone to Cassard's early appearances (not an entirely fair fate for the character, and actor, that Demy brought in from his earlier picture Lola; but then, he serves a totally different purpose here), and it is a jazzy celebration of youth and sass when we're watching Guy interact with his co-workers. But most of all, it is the epic love theme for Geneviève and Guy, an Oscar-nominated piece in a bittersweet minor key that appears several times on the soundtrack, opening and closing the film and leaving us certain from the very first frames that this will not be a film with a happy ending; and its counterpoint, a theme associate with Madeleine, which is more complex and brighter, but not as rich; reflecting, we might suppose, the difference between the blast of passion that is our first young love and the lower-key feelings of our "grown-up" love, the one that's probably more meaningful but so much less thrilling.

While Legrand's genius is undeniable, he's not the only person operating at 100% in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: we must also thank cinematographer Jean Rabier and production designer Bernard Evein for making the film such a gorgeous feast for the eyes, all candy-colored wallpaper and bright costumes and everywhere a sense of gaiety and energy that first reinforces the young lover's enthusiasm, then comments upon it ironically, and finally, in the last scene, a merciless collage of white walls and white snow, puts it out of its misery. A more lavish, lovely color film did not come out of France that decade; I don't know that I'd say that a lovelier color film has ever come out of France, though in doing so I might incur the wrath of Bruno Delbonnel.

Finally, though, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a triumph of naked emotionalism, and a dash of saucy New Wave manipulation. The first of the story's three segments (though it runs some good deal longer than one-third) presents one of the most sympathetic, sentimentally gooey teenage romances ever, infinitely more compelling than in all of the teenybopper exploitation fare from then till now, trouncing the then-new musical West Side Story into oblivion. Part of it is Deneuve and Castelnuovo, looking so fragile and innocent, both of them; part of it is Demy's distance from the characters - at 33, he was old enough to know better than making such a sappy tribute to first love, but it's partially the slight margin of maturity he lets into the edges that somehow makes Geneviève and Guy seem more honest than would otherwise be the case.

The second segment follows Geneviève as Guy goes to war, and Cassard presents himself as the only good alternative to a soon-to-be single mother; it's in this sequence, when Geneviève's blissed-out romanticism transforms into pragmatism and deep inner strength that Deneuve really prefigures her magnificent career, from beauty queen to national treasure of France to international icon of cinema. The third segment, centered on Guy, follows much the same pattern, though it is not so richly performed, but in both cases, the intent is the same: playing on our response to the first segment, these attempts to drive the lovers apart strike us as capricious and sad, even if the characters seem to slowly grow to accept what is happening to themselves.

Then comes the last scene, set more than four years after the rest of the movie; and I would not dream of spoiling it for those lucky souls who still get to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time, but suffice it to say, this is where Demy springs his trap: we in the audience, conditioned by the movies to few first loves as the only true loves, want this final scene to mean one thing, but the characters don't seem to feel the same way, and it becomes increasingly aware that for us, and us alone, the film is a tragedy; for the characters, it's just what happens in life, and though they might have been happier if things had worked out better, it's us, not them, weeping as Legrand's aching score achieves its most overstated grandeur in these final moments. The message of this finale seems to be: don't trust sentiment, a fine continuation of Lola; and for all that it seems to espouse a swooning affection for big splashy romance, in reality The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is good deal more mature and world-weary than it pretends.