First off, a limerick in honour of the late Robert Fuest, here. More on this unsung genius soon.
Off to Paris in again in April, staying in Montmartre, so watched FRENCH CANCAN, Renoir’s Technicolor fictionalisation of the founding of the Moulin Rouge, which doubles as an exploration of showbiz life in general.
Jean Gabin stars, getting back in touch with his song-and-dance-man roots, and he’s joined by the magnificently feral Maria Felix and Francoise Arnoul, she of the surprising nose and infectious glee — she dances like she’s having the maddest good time of her life, which she probably is.
Renoir is achieving several difficult things at once here, while making it all look effortless like a good dancer. First, he’s stringing us along for the first half with what appears to be nothing but froth. Charm is probably genetic, or at any rate I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m pretty sure Michael Bay couldn’t achieve it by hard work. At any rate, as a kind of musical, the movie relies less on dramatic tension (that supposedly essential ingredient) and more on a stimulating array of sets, costumes, girls, amusing characters, music, light-hearted historical observation, girls, and mildly amusing but never riotous comedy bits.
Then the tone shifts slightly to admit true love — an exotic prince is in love with Arnoul, who is shacked up with Gabin and also pursued by her former fiance. The prince’s feelings are far more serious and sincere and painful than any of the troupers’ — showbiz is a dangerous place for such as he. The defusing of this emotional timebomb allows the comedy to proceed , but something has happened. It’s a very bright, non-judgmental film, and the dancers and entrepreneurs, for all their jealousy and squabbling, are non-judgmental people. Those outside their world are prone to more serious emotional attachments, and Arnoul needs to decide what kind of person she is. The theme is made explicit in Gabin’s decreed-by-contract outburst (he had to explode once per movie, the fans expected it — his one is comparatively mild) where he draws the line between entertainment and everyday life.
And then comes the dance —
Spoiler alert — this is the ending —
The cancan itself is spectacular, Renoir’s presentation of it showing how a director can be restrained and placid in shooting and cutting style and still deliver exuberant, exhilarating excitement. It’s the sequence of closeups of audience members that moved me most, and most strangely — these are curtain calls for all the bit-players and leads in the film, and also a kind of farewell to an era, and also something else — a celebration of the audience’s role in the entertainment, and therefor a warm tip of the hat to us, watching on a TV or computer sixty years after Renoir made the film, a hundred and twenty seven years after the events depicted in the film failed to happen in as elegant and colourful a manner in reality.
Francoise and her camouflaged dress — she’s finally being absorbed into the theatre.
And the other thing Renoir achieves is the creation a vibrant, convincing world built in the studio — it’s not just the beautiful production design of Max Douy (previously praised for the vivacious MARGUERITE DE LA NUIT), which is magnificently detailed and as quirky as the real world while still allowing musical-comedy stylisation to play its role. It’s also the performances, from the stars down to the smallest bit players, all of whom are engaged in their business with recognizable human attitudes. It’s a sublime illustration the principle underlying Renoir’s advice, “When filming on a set, always leave one door open, because through that door, reality will come.”
Speaking of detail, I particularly like the plaster head in a bucket at the back of this shot.
The BFI DVD and Blu-ray can be bought —