If the National Film Board of Canada has not already grabbed the film rights to Catherine Buquet and Marion Arbona’s first picture-book collaboration, they should do so right away. The book’s slight-but-heartwarming story, expressionistic visuals, nostalgic tone, mild touch of fantasy, and French setting (especially) would work beautifully as a short, animated feature.
They all work well together as a book, too, of course. The tale takes place in an unnamed French town, the kind full of close buildings and cobblestones. Wind and rain beat down as a middle-aged man fights to hold on to his umbrella and make his way across town. “Under his umbrella / He strode without a smile,” the text tells us. “Under his umbrella / He muttered all the while.” The man’s dark mood is reflected in the mostly grey-and-white colour scheme of the early pages.
Bright colours first appear in the form of a patisserie window, into which a boy in a beret stares hungrily. When the man loses his umbrella in a gust of wind, the boy returns it. The two strangers form an almost-instant friendship: the man buys the boy a tart, which they share as the weather magically turns from grey rain to bright yellow sunshine, through which the two soar happily.
Buquet’s prose, translated into English by Erin Woods, consists of rhyming couplets, most of which fit together and flow with satisfying precision. (There are a few lines that don’t scan: a minor pet peeve.) The extreme perspectives and grim tones of Arbona’s images in the story’s first half initially seem unwelcoming, but ultimately help create the narrative and emotional tension that make the slightly surreal payoff work.
Even with its vague aftertaste of emotional manipulation (it’s not as though the guy with the umbrella is a Grinch-like character in dire need of a lesson in friendship, after all), Under the Umbrella is as sweet and lovingly constructed as the brightest treat in a bakery window.