Monday, May 10, 2010

Scenes I love: French Cancan (1955) — Renoir, c'est moi‎!

Provence is one of the most spectacular regions of France. It's the France of the great Impressionist painters. Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and (of sidelong interest here) Auguste Renoir captured the luminescent quality of the light there and the brilliance of the colors. At least as vital as its sublime scenery, the region's lifestyle has acquired the sobriquet "l'art de vivre," or "the art of living."

Toward the end of his career, director Jean Renoir, son of Auguste, indulged his lifelong affection for the theater in three films that literalize the consummately French "art of living": 1952's robust The Golden Coach (Le Carosse d'Or), the light and lovely French Cancan ('55), and a pastel historical with Ingrid Bergman, Elena and Her Men (Elena et les Hommes) from '56. Each plays around with one of the director's favorite themes: life as theater. They celebrate the preeminent value of art and artistes, as well as life's inherent pretenses, theatricality, and ephemeralness. They're Renoir's champagne-soaked response to Shakespeare's poor players who strut and fret their hour on life's stage before getting offed at the curtain line. Shakespeare tells us that life is phony and rife with lies and deception. Renoir says: Sure it is, so you might as well play along and enjoy it.

All three are period pieces about one woman pursued by three suitors. They're conspicuously stagebound for a director who helped take movies out of the studios and into the real world. In each film, this most artistically compassionate of directors evokes deeply felt emotionalism. Yet even amour, displayed here in abundance, is conjured without the gummy sentimentality of Renoir's American counterparts. Renoir loves his characters as people, not merely as furniture moved around for the sake of a plot.

Returning to France sixteen years after the tempestuous reception of Rules of the Game, Renoir aimed to win back his original audiences with French Cancan, "une comedie musicale." And that (at last) is where I find one of those scenes I love.

Through the devices of a backstage romantic comedy, this fictionalized birth of the infamous Moulin Rouge nightclub evokes a bygone Belle Époque "Paree." It gavottes around the story of a sweet-faced laundry girl, Nini (Françoise Arnoul), who is discovered by the impresario Danglard (Jean Gabin). Danglard promises to make this wide-eyed innocent a star in his upscale revival of the bawdy cancan dance.

Dedicating herself to his tutelage (and his bed) sets both of them at odds with the other men who love her — a moody baker boy (Franco Pastorino) and a wealthy foreign prince (Giani Esposito) — not to mention Danglard's previous mistress, a beautiful and headstrong diva (María Félix) so statuesque that we fear she could swallow Nini as an after-show mint. A comic brawl, intersecting love triangles, financial gamesmanship, and personal enmities put Gabin, the nascent club, and Nini's future beyond the washing baskets at peril.

When it comes to French films, or specifically Renoir's, French Cancan may be the most accessible point of entry for newcomers. It's certainly among the most joyous. All the actors are engaging and their romantic tangles charming. The stagy sets revive the fin de siecle Paris of our imagination, or of Auguste Renoir's paintings.

French Cancan's final twenty minutes take place at the opening night of the Moulin Rouge. (Singer Edith Piaf, the torchy touchstone of moody arts majors everywhere, gets a spotlight scene.) The climactic cancan dance is one of my favorite film dance sequences, a whirling, whisked meringue of motion, color, texture, music, and legs.

When Nini almost wrecks the big event by confronting Danglard about his taking yet another new performer as his mistress, the old showman turns unrealistic Hollywood-like conventions on their head by admonishing her that his heart's sole fealty is to his creations, just as hers should be to the Theater. Coming to her senses, she embraces the liberating new world of her art as she jaunts out to the dance floor to become what she was meant to be, the toast of the Moulin Rouge.

That slides us into a grand finale that blends exhilarating showmanship and a carriageload of characters reconciled, their intrigues and follies stepping aside for "the show must go on."

The film's final perfect little image — outside the vividly stylized Moulin Rouge, a drunken theater patron wobbles into view, stops, faces the camera, and gives us a boozy bow — feels like Renoir himself signing his name at the bottom.

That bow caps the clip below, the concluding cancan scene. This YouTube clip doesn't deliver the subtitles of the exquisite Criterion DVD (part of the terrific Stage and Spectacle boxed set, which also includes The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men). But you get the gist of it well enough, oui?

And just because I like it too, here's that Edith Piaf spotlight scene, which occurs moments before the clip above:

Other big, colorful films have tried to bottle the bawdy fizz of the heralded nightclub. Renoir's French Cancan doesn't bother with the melodrama that freighted John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge. Nor, thankfully, is it the ice-cream headache of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 Moulin Rouge!

Music: Ella Fitzgerald, Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!
Near at hand: Kai the Mostly Malamute, asleep at my feet