From the Stage & Spectacle Box Set
Review by Ed Nguyen
Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, María Félix, Giani Esposito, Franco Pastorino
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: French 1.0
Video: Color, full-screen 1.33:1
Features: Peter Bogdanovich introduction, Jean Renoir Parle de Son Art: Part II, Max Douy interview, stills gallery, essay
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2004
someone told me I'd fall so in love with a little laundress, that I'd feel like
a king when I ought to feel most desperate, I'd be pretty surprised."
Renoir made his greatest impact upon international cinema with some of the
finest films from the poetic realism period of French cinema.
Those films included The Grand Illusion and The
Rules of the Game, considered two of the most influential films ever made.
Yet, on its initial reception, The
Rules of the Game was so reviled and hated by the French public that Renoir
was himself vilified, his cinematic reputation essentially ruined.
It would be well over a dozen years before Renoir would return to his
native homeland to make his next French film.
he finally did, expectations for his new film were exceptionally high.
The Rules of the Game had by
now become recognized as a masterpiece, and critics and audiences alike were
anticipating that Renoir would create another insightful, social satire along
the lines of his earlier French classics. Indeed,
the new Renoir film was to star Jean Gabin, that great leading man of so many of
the memorable pre-war French films. However,
Renoir was not interested in doing a biting social commentary. Instead, he wanted to create a musical about the grand
opening of France's celebrated Moulin Rouge.
The resultant film, French Cancan
(1955), was perhaps not the dramatic, penetrating film that many had expected,
but there was no denying that it was indeed the inspired work of a master
loosely from the actual events and people involved with the real Moulin Rouge, French
Cancan is the story of Danglard (Jean Gabin), a self-made entrepreneur with
a magical flair for transforming simple girls into glamorous stage stars.
French Cancan is filled with
dances and music, Renoir's homage not only to the Belle Époque but also to the
backstage musical. As with many
musicals, French Cancan walks a line
between fantasy and a stylized reality.
film opens with an alluring Egyptian belly dance from Danglard's current show La
Belle Abbesse. The show's
featured dancer and volatile star, Lola (Mexican beauty María Félix), also
happens to be Danglard's lover. However,
when Danglard's backer, also smitten with the alluring Lola, pulls his financial
support out of jealousy, Danglard, enterprising impresario that he is, embarks
upon a risky but bold, new plan. He
buys a local dance hall, only to tear it down in preparations for erecting on
its premises a new show theater, one that will bring music and gaiety to the
common masses. The theater's key
attraction will be a new dance, the French Cancan, in which Danglard envisions a
long line of lovely girls in fanciful attire, kicking up their heels in wild
revelry for the admiration of throes of appreciative audiences.
finds a prospective dancer for his new show in Nini (Françoise Arnoul), an
attractive young girl he spies dancing one evening. Danglard soon begins to groom his new protégée in that
classic backstage musical style. Nini,
over the course of the film, metamorphoses from a simple laundress into a
self-assured, confident showgirl. Once
she acquires a taste for theatrical life, she can no longer return to her
once-simple life. She even
eventually becomes Danglard's current lover.
However, such a relationship will not endure, as Danglard possesses a
wandering eye, his lust for beautiful women only matched by his passion for the
stage itself. Nini, in some ways,
becomes Danglard's counterpart, for in entering the world of the theater, Nini
soon adopts its liberated sexuality, too.
the spirited Nini, Arnoul is quite excellent, mirroring Leslie Caron's own
wonderful performances in An American in
Paris and later in the Colette-inspired musical Gigi. Initially
innocent and wide-eyed, Arnoul's Nini slowly becomes indoctrinated not only in
the backstage drama of the theatrical life but also in the ways of its men.
She will have three suitors throughout the film.
First, there is Paulo, a longtime sweetheart who is surely fated for
disappointment. He is supplanted by Danglard, the larger-than-life,
charismatic impresario of the soon-to-be-opened Moulin Rouge, and Alexandre, an
admiring Russian prince, who repetitively bestows upon Nini rich gifts and
jewelry. This lovelorn prince,
ultimately thwarted in his desire for the showgirl, provides a meaningful quote
of resignation in one pivotal scene: "Animals in the jungle keep to their
own species. They don't mingle,
under pain of death. I stuck my
nose where I shouldn't have, but I survived.
I was lucky." Show
business people are a breed apart from the rest of us.
closes with the grand opening of the Moulin Rouge.
The finale occupies the entire final third of the film, featuring
numerous musical numbers, quadrilles, and even that mainstay of the backstage
musical, a French twist of the classic "You're
going out there a girl, but you've got to come back as a star" pep
Cancan is at
times melodramatic and at times romantic, but it is always a glorious spectacle.
Filled with song and dance, spiced with titillating (for its time)
sensuality, and topped off by cameo appearances from some of France's finest
stage performers of the day, French Cancan recalls those carefree Parisian yesteryears when the
men would merrily sip absinthe on sidewalk cafes and when the mere sight of an
exposed knee could elicit voyeuristic gasps of delight.
the musical genre, such filmmakers as Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen are
frequently celebrated. Jean Renoir
may seem an unusual director to place in their midst, but with French Cancan, he demonstrates quite convincingly a true mastery of
this often-difficult genre in which to work.
French Cancan is exuberant, a
whirlwind of song and motion, and a true celebration of the theater itself..
TRIVIA: French stage legend Edith
Piaf makes a cameo appearance singing a song at a music hall.
presented in its original color, full-screen format.
The transfer was created from a 35mm internegative. The picture generally looks extremely clean, with no
significant dust or debris. The
film stock shows some rare traces of fluttering contrast, a sign of the age of
the old Technicolor process, but otherwise the image is extremely sharp, with
gorgeously bright colors and wonderful clarity of details.
presented in its original French audio. The
soundtrack is remarkably clean and very energetic, as might be expected for a
musical. Due to the monophonic
limitations, the audio is at times mildly distorted, with a limited dynamic
range, but for the most part it is quite serviceable. Coincidentally, Jean Renoir himself wrote many of the songs
for the film.
TRIVIA: The fantastic Jean Renoir-penned tune "Complainte de la Butte"
also appears in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge.
Peter Bogdanovich introduces the film in an eleven-minute featurette.
He discusses Renoir's grand return to French cinema and the differences
between French Cancan and Renoir's
previous French film, The Rules of the Game.
Douy, set designer for French Cancan,
appears in a June 2003 interview (6 min.) to discuss his recollections about the
Francoeur and Saint-Maurice studio sets. He
also elaborates on the importance of the color scheme for the sets and the
subtle attention to details imposed by the Technicolor film stock
Renoir Parle de Son Art: Part II
(15 min.) continues a three-part interview between Jacques Rivette and Jean
Renoir. Entitled "Technical
Progress," this segment
features Renoir discussing his career and his opinions on dialogue and color in
film, the widescreen format, and advances in film stock. Renoir argues that such technical advances have made many
filmmakers lazier and less creative, leading to visually splendid but ultimately
dull films. Were he still alive
today, no doubt Renoir would have felt the same way about CGI effects!
The other portions of this documentary can be found on the Criterion
discs The Golden Coach and Elena and
disc also contains a stills gallery with twelve photographs from the set during
the film's production.
there is a package insert that holds an essay on the film by film critic Andrew
Sarris. He provides a synopsis of
the plot and the film's role in Renoir's later career, during which the
production of French
Cancan was probably one of the happiest experiences of Renoir's film career.
with wondrous colors and glorious sounds, French
Cancan is a glowing and sensual tribute to the Belle Époque.
An artistic nod to the impressionistic paintings of Renoir's famous
father, the film also marked Renoir's triumphant return to the French cinema.
For anyone with a nostalgic yearning for the innocence and gaiety of
yesteryear's musicals, French Cancan
is a superb choice and after all these years, still the best film ever made
about the Moulin Rouge!