Pastel of the 60s: French Films

This school year I’ve really been experiencing French films of the 1960s much more than before. One of the elements that I really love about these films is the color grade. (This is evident in American films.)  There’s something about a film in a sun soaked/pastel wash that I just find nostalgic, so much that this element is mentioned in a poem I wrote recently about a fictional film set in the 60s.

This look is still appreciated/desired by filmmakers today. (Think Wes Anderson films. Click here to read an interview with his colorist, Jill Bogdanowicz about creating color grades for specific decades for The Grand Budapest Hotel.) While the art direction and the locations are helpful contributions, we need to remember that the camera itself and the specific type of film used and the lighting affected this look.

In this post, I’d like to trace back to a few films of the era that really capture the palette of pastels with the art direction.

PastelFilm2_2The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) has been written about numerous times since its release and for good reason: 1. the music throughout the entire film was composed by the legendary Michel Legrand, 2. the performances are strong, especially of Catherine Deneuve, 3. the vivid palette throughout the entire film. In the top image, this is from the opening credits of the film and is probably now one of my absolute favorite openings. (Click here to watch the opening credits.) The symmetry in the cinematography and the pastel umbrellas create such an aesthetically delightful opening. On the left, check out that wallpaper! After watching this film, I remember finding that the wallpaper prints have inspired photoshoot themes and interior designers. One could write all about the color, design and meaning of the wallpaper in the rooms of the film. And that’s what I really like about the art direction is that the colors are bold yet not distracting from the other components of the film such as the actors and music, and not at all an overload inducing pain to the eyes of the audience. Compare the striped robe of the mother to the yellow coat of Deneuve’s on the right to see how even the costumes adopt soft pastel shades. This film is interesting because it’s not exactly a musical in terms of breaking out into song and dance, but every line the actors have is actually sung. This may be tedious to those who aren’t into musicals and at first I wasn’t sure about this either but grew used to it and focused on the art direction.

PastelFilm1That Man From Rio (1964) is a wonderfully fun film that at times spoofs James Bond and the Belgian comic Tintin (the film version I’m sort of obsessed with), yet it’s refreshing because of the wildly imaginative narrative. It’s original, charming, keeps you on your toes and is colorful. The cinematography really helps capture the story and the location shots of Rio de Janeiro and Paris are stunning. The top image is in Rio with Francoise Dorleac and Jean-Paul Belmondo, is an example of the kind of shots you can expect. I love Dorleac’s pastel blue dress (also had a matching jacket not pictured) and this may be a bit off topic but I love how the wardrobe including Belmondo’s is still functional for adventuring when both characters clearly weren’t planning for the situation they got placed in. On the left I chose this more as a close up to show how Dorleac’s makeup matches her dress (usually I don’t like that and know it was popular to do so in other eras, but in this case it totally works I think because the color is still somewhat soft and the rest of the makeup is relatively natural) and Belmondo’s similarly colored shirt. On the right, this is what I meant when I said earlier that everything is pretty imaginative–check out the pink car with green stars! It’s unusual and in another world may be considered tacky, but in this case of the story going on it just works and is actually pretty cool. That Man From Rio is a film that everyone should check out. Suspend your disbelief if you’re one who likes mostly plausible films and just go with it, you’ll love the journey that this film takes you on.


PastelFilm3The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is another film with music throughout once again composed by Michel Legrand like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Also Catherine Deneuve and her real life late sister mentioned in That Man From Rio, Francoise Dorleac, play twins in this film. Gene Kelly pops in at times during the film for some dance numbers. The best way I could describe this film is how it evokes a dream like quality–once again it’s the story, locations and art direction that blend together to create a colorful fantasy. At the top left, this is from one of the dances Gene Kelly performs in. The sunshine during this sequence really showcases the mood of this film, happy and warm. Notice the balloons in the background and the pink in every dancer’s costumes. On the right you can see how the costumes were designed with a pastel palette in mind and how effective they are. I realize that some people might find pastel to be tacky and too Easter-ish, but I (obviously) disagree. In Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the interiors had colorful wallpaper and pastel clothing, but here the set designs are “toned down” while still having a beauty to them this time more classical, and complimenting the costumes. The bottom picture shows the “twins” in another example of bright costume design. Pink and yellow are typically two colors that clash but here they go together because of their similar boldness. I want to also take a moment to point how the makeup balances the costumes out. The makeup is with the typical false eyelashes for open doe eyes and the lipstick is a natural shade which shows how to balance out bright colors. Overall this film is beautiful. If Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t to your taste due to the mood/sung dialogue, try this film instead.

PastelFilm4I like films that comment about filmmaking and Contempt (1963) does just that. Starring Brigitte Bardot at the height of career and Michel Piccoli as her husband in the film,along with supporting cast like appearances by Fritz Lang (director of films including iconic Metropolis from 1927). This film is basically about a playwright who is trying to rewrite a script to adapt The Odyssey to film while his marriage is falling apart. Honestly, there’s not too much pastel in this film compared to the others. But the reason why I did choose it is because of the tough look it gave of filmmaking (at times other films can over glamorize filmmaking and that can be too heavy to handle). The top left is an example of my interest in the colors in the costumes during some scenes. In this particular film still, the setting is a screening room and I really love how Giorgia Moll’s yellow sweater stands out in the scene. Left features Bardot in a pastel top that contrasts against the sea beautifully. Contempt‘s costumes are more bold than soft but the use of color is still effective. The bottom picture really sums up why I loved the look of the film because of that “sun drenched” hue. Earlier I said that the film used contributed to the pastel look. Contempt was shot on Technicolor, (which some say Jean Luc Godard wasn’t too thrilled about. I’m interested if anyone can find evidence if this was the case or not) which was dye transferred in a lab. In the bottom picture I like color panel (to help with color reference in editing) because it’s these kinds of shades that really capture what the sun drenched look that I think of. Look at the blue eyes of the Greek statue, it’s shades like these that aren’t exactly pastel but appear soft against the sunlight. Contempt is a bit hard to find on DVD unless you can find the out of print Criterion copy, but you can rent it to stream if you’d like to take a look at it. The comment it makes on art, film and the business of movies is interesting!

*Cover photo is from a scene from That Man From Rio, my favorite film out of the four. 🙂


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