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THE GOLDEN COACH
From the Stage & Spectacle Box Set

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont, Riccardo Rioli

Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: English
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Jean Renoir introduction, Martin Scorsese introduction, Jean Renoir Parle de Son Art: Part I, stills gallery, essays
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2004

"Well, how do you like the New World?"

"It will be nice when it's finished."

Film ***

During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, film director Jean Renoir lived a life of self-imposed exile from his homeland of France.  Establishing himself in the United States, Renoir attempted to adapt his personal cinematic style to the Hollywood machinery of the studio system.  His efforts were uneven at best, although he continued to stay in the United States for some time even after the conclusion of the war.  However, the critical acclaim for his film The River (1951), which had been filmed entirely on location in India, convinced Renoir that the time had come to return once again to European cinema, where he had enjoyed his greatest early successes.

One of the potential projects which interested him during this time was an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's play The Coach of the Holy Sacrament.  For many years, Renoir had wanted to direct a theatrical film, and Mérimée's play provided him with a perfect opportunity to do so.  Enlisting the participation of Italian superstar Anna Magnani, Renoir would direct what was to become his first European film in over a dozen years - Le Carrose d'Or (The Golden Coach, 1953).

As an Italian production, The Golden Coach is a film fashioned after the style of commedia dell'arte, the Artistic Comedy.  This traditional form of Italian theater is widely recognizable for its multi-colored, patched costumes and the animal-like, grotesque, sometimes caricature masks worn by the performers.  The plots of many commedia dell'arte plays would focus on love intrigues or clever ploys to acquire money and wealth.  Many of the characters of commedia dell'arte are well-known, of which the most celebrated is surely the jester Zanni, most famously embodied in the anarchic, chaotic Harlequin persona.  Often male but sometimes female, the jester Harlequin is always possessed of a witty tongue and is one of the great Trickster archetypes in the theatrical world.  Usually portrayed as a hungry and penniless character, Harlequin is frequently plotting deceitful ways to separate the wealthy from their money.

Harlequin's regular target is Pantalone, often regarded as Harlequin's opposite.  Pantalone is typically a rich and greedy merchant or nobleman.  Ever the victim of Harlequin's wit and improvisation, Pantalone must regularly be protective of his wealth.

These two archetypal characters are represented in The Golden Coach, which uses a commedia dell'arte style to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality in its play-within-a-play structure.  The main story is set in the Latin American Spanish colony of Peru during the eighteenth century, where The Golden Coach opens upon a stage as the camera pans inward.  In this sense, the theatrical stage then becomes the world of the film, a reflection of Renoir's central theme of life as theater.  As the film begins, the new day brings the arrival of a magnificent golden coach.  It is the new and latest toy for the colony's Viceroy (Duncan Lamont), a rich if self-important man.

The new day also harkens the arrival of a troupe of actors, just arrived from the Old World.  Among the actors is Camilla (Anna Magnani), an Italian actress who soon catches the wandering eye of the Viceroy.  Camilla also attracts the attention of Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a bullfighter with some degree of local celebrity.  Both men are drawn by her during the troupe's opening performance, in which Camilla portrays a servant girl named Columbine.

In this brief play-within-a-play, Columbine is introduced onstage as Harlequin's image, seen mocking him through a mirror.  The implication may be that Magnani's character, both on stage and off, is a reflection of Harlequin's personality -  quick-witted with a lust for material wealth.

Her opposite then is surely the Viceroy, the Pantalone of the "real" world.  The Viceroy's golden coach, coveted by all in his court, becomes the prize for which Camilla will grace the Viceroy with her affections.  By wits or feminine allure, Camilla will ultimately secure the golden coach, which we understand will not rest long in the Viceroy's possession.  But first, Camilla must decide which of her men, the Viceroy, Ramon the bullfighter, or even Felipe, her long-suffering admirer, is most dear to her heart, if any at all.

If some of the actions in the film seem theatrical or farcical, that is as intended.  Actual circus performers are even featured as members of the acting troupe, and the film's opening shot is one of a curtain rising upon a stage before the camera draws inward to transform this world of artifice into the film's setting.  For Renoir, all the world is indeed a stage, and for The Golden Coach, even the commedia dell'arte characters found in its play-within-a-play structure are mirrored in its off-stage storyline as fantasy and reality are thus allowed to intermingle.  At one point, Camilla even states, "I'm absolutely sincere in life and on the stage....Where does the theater end and life begin?"

The Golden Coach may ultimately be light entertainment, but it is a fun, beautiful, and sumptuously-composed film.  While its main star, Anna Magnani, is best remembered today for her roles in many Italian neorealist films, The Golden Coach offers an ideal opportunity to see this instinctive and often larger-than-life actress displaying her comic prowess as well.

Video ***

The Golden Coach was the first major Italian film made in Technicolor.  This DVD features a transfer created from a 35mm interpositive  There are some minor traces of degradation of the Technicolor film stock, but otherwise the film looks quite gorgeous and is also remarkably clean of debris or dust.  The only exception arrives at the very end in the final minute, which has been restored to the film but by comparison is quite contrasty, with significantly decreased clarity and detail levels.

Audio ***

Although Italian and French-language versions of The Golden Coach do exist, the original film soundtrack was recorded in English.  Renoir preferred the English track, which is the one presented on this Criterion release.  Generally, the audio is quite clear with a minimal of background hiss or noise.  It also features a score which draws heavily from music by composer Antonio Vivaldi, such as excerpts from "The Four Seasons."  Needless to say, the music is quite spectacular, and in fact, Renoir had written some scenes in his film expressively to match the rhythm and syncopation of Vivaldi's music.

Features **

There are two introductions to The Golden Coach.  In the Jean Renoir introduction (8 min.), we learn how the idea for the film arose from conversations between Renoir with Italian producers and Anna Magnani (who spoke no English but learned it specifically for this film).  Renoir relates his admiration for Magnani and his preference for the original English-language version of the film, which features Magnani's actual speaking voice.

Martin Scorsese offers his own introduction (2 min.) to the film in which he discusses the influence of various Renoir films upon his own youth.  Scorsese also offers some trivia points about the film, including a word or two about its restoration.

Jean Renoir Parle de Son Art (23 min.) is the first part of a vintage 1960's documentary in which Renoir discusses aspects of cinema and film theory.  For this segment, entitled Cinema and the Spoken Word, Renoir focuses upon the relationship between silent and talking films, particularly in how film technique and the "sincerity" and continuity of films have evolved.  The other portions of this documentary can be found on the Criterion discs French Cancan and Elena and Her Men.

The last bonus on the DVD is a stills gallery with ten production photographs.

Criterion has also included a package insert with a couple of essays pertaining to the film.  The first, by film critic Andrew Sarris, discusses the film, its initial reception, and its star actress, Anna Magnani.  The second essay, by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, discusses The Golden Coach's place alongside French Cancan and Elena and Her Men as part of an informal trilogy of theatrical spectacle by Renoir.

Summary:

The Golden Coach is considered the first of a trilogy of consecutive films by Jean Renoir that celebrates the theater.  An early Italian Technicolor film, it is quite a visual feast and features a whirlwind performance by one of the most beloved of Italian actresses, Anna Magnani.

Read more about Renoir's trilogy in the review for Renoir's next film, French Cancan.

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