|Director Jean Renoir on the set|
|Jules Chéret posters|
FRENCH CANCAN A France Italy (102 mi) 1955 d: Jean Renoir
Yes, it’s true. I’m his mistress and I’m proud of it. —Nini (Françoise Arnoul)
Renoir’s first film made on his native soil since RULES OF THE GAME (1939), having fled to America during the Nazi occupation, this celebrates all the remarkable attributes of a “Renoir” film, becoming a loving tribute to Parisian bohemian life immersed in candy-colored images that border on French cliché. While it’s a Technicolor extravaganza, the film revisits La Belle Époque of the 1890’s in all its cinematic glory, eliminating the filthy streets and squalor in order to invoke a more glamorous atmosphere of dreamy Paris, providing a kind of ho-hum storyline written by Renoir and screenwriter André-Paul Antoine, both getting their starts in the 1920’s, where the dance sequences add a needed shot of adrenaline, evoking the paintings of Degas and the Impressionists, including the director’s own father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with the screen literally exploding with music, dancing, and color, especially during the spectacular finale. Based on the life of Charles Ziedler (changed to Danglard, played by Jean Gabin, Renoir’s star through much of the 30’s), the man who founded the Moulin Rouge on the site of the old Cabaret of the White Queen, it is a story going back to Renoir’s roots in Montmartre, the world of his childhood and of his father. The film was extremely popular at the box office, praised as a tour de force success, even by the young guns at Cahiers du Cinéma, including François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard, who otherwise delighted in scathing rebukes of French films in general, except those of Renoir, running several pieces, accompanied by a positive review from editor André Bazin, who described the director as having reached a level of maturity, and was at the pinnacle of his “classical style,” claiming he couldn’t “imagine a more perfect homage to Auguste Renoir.” Released in America as ONLY THE FRENCH CAN, with supposedly inappropriate footage cut, Renoir’s American films were not highly regarded in France, with many still angered that he left the country during the war, and were inclined to believe that he was an artist in decline, though Éric Rohmer at Cahiers considered THE SOUTHERNER (1945) “the apex of Renoir’s work,” with some praising the pre-war Renoir “of the left” while others praised the post-war Renoir of “pure cinema.” Danglard is the aging protagonist, a nightclub impresario who shrewdly thinks he can take a hopelessly outdated dance club in a disreputable working-class neighborhood and turn it into a popular new attraction, a French cabaret associated with a chorus line of female dancers doing the can-can in skirts and petticoats doing high kicks, splits, and cartwheels, as depicted in Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine, often exposing their undergarments, which was considered scandalous at the time, with societal attempts to suppress it. Part biopic, part romance, and part backstage musical, this is the only Renoir film that features a director, with the irrepressible Danglard serving as his alter-ego, having his own way of handling performers, where balancing the various temperaments and eccentricities as well as their many talents while putting on a cabaret show parallels Renoir’s own working methods of making films, both dedicated only to their art. For the most part, Danglard doesn’t do or say much, but simply observes, only occasionally intervening, acting as a medium between the stage and the world at large, taking extreme delight in passively allowing the creative process to develop into a cohesive vision.
Danglard is overtly class-conscious, aware of the appeal to aristocrats and their thrill of “slumming” among the masses, sensing a bit of danger as they rub elbows with criminals, lowlifes, and the common man, enthusiastically describing the experience he envisions, “A taste of the low life for millionaires. Adventure in comfort. Garden tables, the best champagne, great numbers by the finest artistes. The bourgeois will be thrilled to mix with our girls without fear of disease or getting knifed.” With implications that art breaks down social barriers, a peek behind the scenes allows us to see a developing romance happening simultaneously with the concept of building a show. For Renoir, film movement is an intrinsic element built into his craft, where the ever-flowing river is the essence of The River (Renoir) (1951), the structure upon which the entire film is based, while this film thrives on dance movement, with bodies perpetually in motion, where Michel Kelber’s camera is always searching for every conceivable camera angle to capture the swirl of motion, where the art of living is captured in that one fleeting moment, while also accentuating waves of color, mirrored in Pierre-Auguste’s painting Bal du moulin de la Galette, which his son actually expands upon in a continually developing relationship with a painting and his own cinematic aesthetic. It’s the color where this most succeeds, adding details and textures that few other films have found, while perfectly capturing that same spontaneous sense of motion, as if the painting has suddenly come to life, described by Bazin, “Renoir is Impressionism multiplied by the cinema.” By studying the romantic intrigues of the diverse group of people visiting the popular nightclub, Renoir offers a cross section of society, where we quickly learn that among Danglard’s many attributes is the discovery of new talent in a business he describes to the mother of a young girl he recruits to join his group of dancers as “the most wonderful profession in the world,” with Nini (Françoise Arnoul) infusing life into the story, eventually becoming his lover. All the various relationships are established during an introductory sequence at a popular Montmartre bar and dancehall, The White Queen, where Danglard, his mistress Lola (Maria Félix), and various hangers-on go dancing as they meet Nini, the laundress, and her jealous, overly possessive, young baker boyfriend Paulo (Franco Pastorino), Michel Piccoli [Le Capitaine Valorgueil] dans ''French Cancan'' (1955) de Jean Renoir YouTube (1:44), a scene that evokes the arrival to Zerlina’s wedding in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an artist who shares Renoir’s spirit of generosity and universality, where nobles and peasants, as well as masters and servants meet in one of the most gorgeous musical ensembles in opera. From the outset, Danglard is beset with financial woes caused by financier Baron Walter (Jean-Roger Caussimon) in retaliation for his amorous exploits, crossing the line, so to speak, with Lola, the subject of his own amorous interest, using money as a weapon to drive him out of the picture, bankrupting his club while going after his possessions to cover the outstanding debts. Nonetheless, Danglard shrugs it off with a casual air, always offering a monetary token of his appreciation to beggars on the street, as Renoir has always been fascinated by those living on the margins. Among his many truisms spoken throughout the film, Danglard seems to be speaking for the entire profession when he says, “We artists are at the mercy of the men with money.”
The European morality on display might seem scandalous in America, with Danglard a serial womanizer balancing three different lovers, Lola, Nini, and a new love Esther Georges (Anna Amendola), initially seen in a neighboring apartment singing what amounts to the theme song heard throughout the film about destitute lovers, written by Renoir, actually sung by Cora Vaucaire, Extrait du film French Cancan (1954) 🎬 - La Complainte de la Butte - Moulin Rouge YouTube (2:59), yet Danglard is married only to his art, where the obvious age difference sets a precedent for the 70-year old Maurice Chevalier in GIGI (1958), as the grey-haired Gabin was 50 when the film was made, where his love tryst with Nini (Françoise Arnoul was 23-years-old at the time) might turn heads, with most believing him to be her father. Nini quickly gives up her virginity to the baker, believing that’s what she’ll have to sacrifice anyway, thinking a sexual transaction between patron and protégée is all part of the business, but she is pleasantly surprised to discover that’s not a condition of employment, adding an underlying context that sex, money, and the theater are inexorably linked. Renoir was equally unphased in these matters, having grown up in a household with a casually hedonistic view of women that seems pervasively French, with glaring signs of sexism, but then the same could be said of nearly all films made at the time. Of note, Nini has her own suitors, rotating between Paolo, Danglard, and a wealthy young foreign Prince Alexandre, played by Giani Esposito, one of the featured stars in Rivette’s PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), who promises to lavish her with jewels and opulence, with Lola veering between Danglard, Walter, and Captain Valorgueil (Michel Piccoli in one of his earliest roles). There’s no moral denunciation of these multiple partners, though jealousy does rear its ugly head on multiple occasions, typically used to accentuate the drama, yet Renoir is open and honest about it, and does not hide behind any veiled hypocrisy. When Nini arrives for the strenuous stretch exercises in Madame Guibole’s dance class, it not only reminds us of a Degas sketch, but it foreshadows what’s to come, as the show sequences are overwhelmingly female, where the women become the real stars of the film. Nonetheless, the cancan dance itself is an erotic spectacle, with little left to the imagination, where it would be hard to deny the level of female objectification, perhaps a textbook example of the male gaze. Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau were dressed as cancan dancers in the Mexican outback of Louis Malle’s VIVA MARIA! (1965), so there is a level of sexualized carry-over. Shot entirely on studio sets (the original locations no longer existed), the streets in particular look artificial, lacking the effusive energy of any city street, giving this a very stylized look, lacking the social realism of the director’s earlier French films, causing some to lament a lowering of his standards. In an interesting aside, Renoir filmed a cancan sequence in his earlier silent era film NANA (1926), Nana (Jean Renoir, 1926): Cancan YouTube (1:32), but he was frustrated by the lack of sound, vowing to make a musical, taking him nearly thirty years. In a nod to that era, one of the hammiest onscreen performers, Casimir le Serpentin (Philippe Clay), can be seen breaking out into song to the accompaniment of an unseen orchestra.
Once the Prince enters the picture, and it’s clear Nini doesn’t love him, preferring the love of the theater, she agrees to spend a night on the town with him before he leaves, which allows Renoir to escalate his mythical image of Paris in a heavily romanticized pastiche, shown through a rapidly changing, sequential montage visiting all the nightclubs, which are cabaret acts with painted backgrounds, spending only a minute or so in each, using contemporary singers to impersonate Belle Époque stars, featuring Patachou as Yvette Guilbert, and the legendary Édith Piaf in a brief appearance dressed in her signature black attire as Eugénie Buffet, where the two are inevitably linked in the history of chanson réaliste, Piaf dans 'French Cancan' de Renoir 1954) HD 720p YouTube (42 seconds). Also included is a montage of Jules Chéret posters for La Taverne Olympia, Les Folies Bergère, and Le Nouveau Cirque, some of which were seen in the opening credits, French Cancan (1955) title sequence YouTube (2:11). While Nini and the Prince are part of an appreciative audience, their reactions couldn’t be more different, as she’s rapturously delighted, visibly moved by what she sees, while he only has eyes for her, as if lost in a dream that eventually has to come to an end. That same sense of exaggerated cinematic intoxication drives the exhilarating extravagance of the finale, which essentially shows the birth of Nini as a performer, where a costume drama, a romantic film, and a musical comedy finally merge together in an all-out assault to the senses, where the return of the cancan onstage is associated with nothing less than the liberation of France after the war, where the patriotic delirium is the same, like an ode to joy, as if expressing the very soul of what is quintessentially French. It’s here that the women are the real stars, bursting out of nowhere, jumping onto the tabletops in their colorful costumes before taking over the expansive floor space, becoming a dazzling and empowering spectacle, as the men simply take a back seat, overwhelmed by the glorious sensuality they see, almost as if they can’t believe their eyes. This extraordinary visualization represents a return of the very heart of the country, something that had been missing for far too long, where the impact is nothing less than overwhelming, French Can Can dance scene part 1 YouTube (3:04), French Can Can dance scene part 2 YouTube (2:48), French Can Can dance scene part 3 YouTube (3:02). Despite all the theatrical fireworks, one of the most poignant scenes is a quiet moment of Danglard sitting backstage alone, where we hear the bombastic music onstage, but he’s simply ecstatic with the realization of what he’s created. The dance offers a striking motif, mirroring the vivid and dynamic women in the Chéret posters we see throughout the film, rhapsodic images of the joy of movement. The cancan is the culmination and professionalization of earlier styles of dancing practiced throughout 19th century France, adding various international forms of “skirt dancing.” Its origin is shrouded in mystery, becoming an erotic display of women’s legs, with the lifting of their skirts, the high kicks, and the splits, while also offering a carnivalesque view of their backsides, as the dancers literally embody irrepressible joy, energy, and movement, where the extreme physical pleasure it exudes is nothing less than spectacular, a feast for the eyes, mirroring the enduring legacy of Renoir’s illustrious return to France.
entire film with subtitles may be seen on FshareTV (1:43:47)