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FRENCH CANCAN
From the Stage & Spectacle Box Set

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, María Félix, Giani Esposito, Franco Pastorino
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: French 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
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

"If 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."

Film ****

Jean 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.

When 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 filmmaker.

Drawn 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.

The 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.

Danglard 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.

As 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.

French Cancan 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 talk.

French 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.

In 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..

BONUS TRIVIA:  French stage legend Edith Piaf makes a cameo appearance singing a song at a music hall.

Video ***

French Cancan is 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.

Audio ** 1/2

French Cancan is 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.

BONUS TRIVIA: The fantastic Jean Renoir-penned tune "Complainte de la Butte" also appears in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

Features **

Director 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.

Max 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

Jean 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 Her Men.

The disc also contains a stills gallery with twelve photographs from the set during the film's production.

Lastly, 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.

Summary:

Bursting 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!

Read more about Renoir's trilogy in the review for Renoir's next film, Elena and Her Men.

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