Every cinephile has at least one formative film where the mere mention of the title functions as a time machine, transporting the individual back to the day the work was first viewed. For a fleeting moment their future is lost as the past becomes the present and bygone fears, hopes and dreams chain their body to a state of immobility. One film that elicits this metaphysical response from me is Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, 1964). Any utterance of Cherbourg carries me back to the overcast day in January 2016 when Demys’ kaleidoscopic world coupled with Michel Legrands’ melancholic melodies breathed life into the dilapidated bedroom where a recent high-school graduate traversed through films and records searching for the answers to life’s many mysteries. I share this cinephilic memory because not only is My Darling in Stirling (Bill Mousoulis, 2023) unabashedly inspired by Cherbourg but it’s also the kind of film only a cinephile could conceive of. 

Mousoulis’ career is one born and nourished on cinephilia. With no formal education, he learnt filmmaking empirically by immersing himself in European art cinema (Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard) and experimenting with Super-8. Revisiting the Super-8 shorts from his first decade now, it’s remarkable to observe how he managed to subliminally sketch a vivid landscape of the various interests he’d colour in the coming years. Perhaps, the oldest of these fascinations is music and the various functions it serves in our everyday – it can fill a void within us (Dreams Never End, 1983), accentuate our universal desire for true love (Fun Girl, 1986), provide a release for pent-up emotions (Crazy Motherfucker, 1989) or inspire us to convalesce (How Soon Is Now, 1990). Music has only sparsely inhabited his feature work until the last eight years where it’s become the focal point. His last film Songs of the Revolution (2017) being a hybrid documentary/narrative about the history of Greek radical music and now My Darling in Stirling is his first, hopefully not last narrative musical.

My Darling in Stirling

Like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, My Darling in Stirling is a recitative musical in which every line of dialogue is sung. This type of continuous operetta is difficult for any filmmaker to pull off since it not only demands they possess a knowledge of dramatic rhythm and modulation but requires complete cohesion from the cast and crew. For instance, when making his film, Demy wrote the script, laid out a score along with Michel Legrand, hired professional singers to make a record, presented the actors with said record to practise lip-synching and then, played the record on loop during shooting. With all the extra work required, it’s no surprise that other Demy homages, Jeanne et le Garçon formidable (Jeanne the Perfect Guy, Oliver Ducastel & Jacques Martineau, 1998), Les Chasons d’amour (Love Songs, 2007) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) opt for a more traditional distribution of song and spoken dialogue as seen in Demy’s later musical. Mousoulis instead accepts a dare from our cinematic guardian angel and takes a rather ingenious approach to music making, Mousoulis (who credits himself as “song designer”), scoured the Free Music Archive for pre-existing musical compositions that he could apply melodies and lyrics to. The result is something akin to my dream film, a bittersweet celebration of ordinary life. 

Despite the continuous musical score, My Darling in Stirling is a simple story of love and loss, filtered through the eyes of Emma (played incandescently by newcomer Amelie Dunda), a voracious reader who pines for a wider breadth of life experiences than the suburbs can offer. Her silent yearning is answered when her Aunt Christine (a heartbreaking performance by Lisa Boothey) comes to whisk Emma, her brother Jason (Joshua Blenkiron) and mum Jenny (Tina Crawford) away to the idyllic town of Stirling for a daytrip. It’s here Emma’s perception of the world begins to grow; the first thing that draws her in is the tall, dark, and handsome café-waiter Nick (Henry Cooper) but importantly it’s not the only thing. In a scene of starry-eyed discovery, director of photography Werner Lachs’ constantly moving, almost dancing camera follows Emma as she roams the streets of this newfound wonderland with her aunt and admires the quaint scenery, sense of community and of course, the bookshop. Emma returns to the suburbs; the switch of perception has been flicked, as one of her t-shirts (an amusing piece of production design by Chloe Jade Keays) reads she’s “like, realizing stuff”. 

My Darling in Stirling

(Side Note: At several points throughout the film Lach’s camera lingers on the books Emma’s reading. In most instances the books cleverly externalise her emotions i.e. she reads Letting-Go: The Pathway of Surrender during a period of distress, though there are two books which allude to something else. Both The Vanishing Sky and Stefanos of Limassol contain references to war, their inclusion a subtle nod to the conflict that tore the young lovers asunder in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

Since the beginning of our friendship, Bill and I have discussed the movie musical, particularly what endears us towards certain directors. One of the things that makes Demy’s cinematic universe so potent for us is the way the maestro effortlessly oscillates between feelings of joy and melancholy without every succumbing to either/or. On the contrary, our other mutual favourite, the underseen and only director of Greek movie musicals Yannis Dalianidis preferred to keep these conflicting emotions separate. In the second quarter of his film, Mousoulis walks Demys’ tightrope of joyous/melancholy while simultaneously invoking Dalianidis’ two best musicals, the jubilant Koritsia Gia Filima (Kiss the Girls, 1965) and the mournful Gymnoi Sto Dromo (Naked in the Street, 1969). 

Scenes of Emma’s youth in bloom around the town are punctuated by sorrowful visits to Christine’s home; Mousoulis creates a stark juxtaposition here between Emma’s newfound independence away from books and her aunt’s retreat into them to cope with her only son’s death. The spectre of death looms large at several points, culminating in haunting melodies that take my breath away at the mere thought. After her first solo visit to Stirling, Emma returns home and reflects with her mother and brother how “loss comes to us all”, it was in this moment that I first noticed how Mousoulis lights each actor’s face to make their eyes the most prominent feature, somehow matching their movement to the tenor of the music. In a way this scene acts as an inverse to a number from Naked in the Street where the lead actor Nikos Kourkoulos leads a chorus of mourners in a song, urging a recently deceased local to resist and “not drink the water of oblivion”. Unlike in that melancholic musical, euphoria conquers sorrow in My Darling in Stirling, albeit temporarily. Emma moves in with Christine, begins work at the bookshop and embarks on an ethereal relationship with waiter Nick. Saturated blues and earthy greens (courtesy of Lachs’ vivid colour grading), cloak the lovers at each point of discovery, gently propelling them towards the transcendental dimension where they finally land in the film’s central “When You Go” number. The couple stroll arm in arm from the town square to a lush park, first declaring their love for each other verbally then physically via an impromptu dance; this gesture a reference to the recurring motif in Dalianidis musicals in which glad girls swing elegantly next to daffy dudes made my heart swoon. The “When You Go” number is a double-edged sword, acting as both a celebration and farewell to joy. 

My Darling in Stirling

Emma’s life in Stirling falls apart as quickly as it was built – she gets laid off from the store, is jilted by Nick and returns to ordinary life in the suburbs. Lachs’ colour palette fades as Emma descends into a depression that feels so realistic it could almost be cinéma vérité, I mean who hasn’t wandered aimless through the shopping mall in a time of crisis. Time and familial support help to gradually assuage Emma’s pain, however the same can’t be said for Christine, who drifts back to her one woman island, affirming that the loss of a child is something that can’t truly be overcome. Amongst the turmoil Mousoulis includes one final moment of pure exhilaration, Richard (Mike Foenander) a local suburban postman whose ‘last run’ opens the film materialises, seemingly out of thin air to help Emma’s mum Jenny carry her groceries home. Despite no longer being the postman, the streets and the people who inhabit them live on in Richard, just like the Brigadoon-esque Stirling will remain idyllic and unaffected by time in Emma’s mind. 

In one final nod to Demy, the young lovers reunite by chance in an epilogue scene that revels in and twists the finale of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Guy and Genevieve’s final encounter is a bitter resignation, they realise they were meant for each other, yet fate’s cruel hand has doomed them to live out the rest of their lives with second-best. Mousoulis opts to end his film on a hopeful note, Emma and Nick’s reunion is brief, their bodies are framed in separate shots until Emma brushes past him without looking. She continues to stride through the city with her chin up, a triumphant gesture of self-empowerment that foretells of Emma’s bright future. Like our heroine, I too look to the future with a sense of hope, a far-cry from the isolated young man in my opening anecdote. With only three watches under my belt, My Darling in Stirling has already become a formative film, as time passes, any mention of it will surely act as a time machine taking me back to this period of prosperity, reminding me always of the Godardian adage, “life can be sad, but it’s always beautiful”.

My Darling in Stirling

About The Author

Frankie Kanatas is a Greek-Australian filmmaker, writer, and critic. An ardent admirer of movie musicals and “Golden Age” Greek Cinema, he is preparing a study on the films of Yannis Dalianidis.

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