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 —

French Cancan [DVD + Blu-ray]

13 Responses to “Kicks”

  1. FRENCH CANCAN was the movie where I fell in love with Renoir. I admired Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game but this was the “Open Sesame” that made me fully appreciate those masterpieces and other great films. Its one of the most beautiful films ever made.
    The thing I realized about the Cancan finale is that unlike say, Busby Berkeley’s music numbers which are self-contained movies in a movie, the finale only takes meaning when you see the entire film. See it as a clip, at least for me, and it doesn’t quite have the impact, the jolt of joy, the movement of all these girls only has an impact if you see the entire film, as of course does the close-ups to the audience, to the bit players and of course Jean Gabin at backstage sitting on a chair listening to the crowd’s reaction with pleasure. (It kind of recalls and corrects the ending of 42nd Street with Warner Baxter sitting alone outside the theatre).

    For me, everything from the credits to the end, the shot of the drunk passing by the matte-backdrop of the Moulin Rouge is a single living painting which as per Andre Bazin, is like the father’s works precisely because it avoids being self-consciously painterly, showing the world between the paintings of Degas and Lautrec and the down time of Auguste Renoir’s ‘The Dance at the Moulin-Galette”. I am paraphrasing here but this movie always makes me rhapsodize.

    Renoir’s Stage and Spectacle trilogy dealt with performance as a way of life, and of the three FRENCH CANCAN is the most hopeful. THE GOLDEN COACH was about the permanent loneliness of an actor and ”Elena” is a comedy about sweet and beautiful life is when the public gets behind a military coup.

  2. The oft-cited classics of Renoir don’t seem to me to be the best way into his oeuvre. Rules of the Game is a difficult, prickly film, and Renoir’s prefatory remarks confuse more than help. And the weight of scholarly praise kind of browbeats the viewer — better to see them when you already love Renoir in your own way, and there are as many ways as there are viewers.

    Haven’t seen the other films in the trilogy — I have so much to look forward to!

    And you’re right, the ending has a cathartic effect, with all that labour and heartache paying off in a glorious celebration. There’s a very brief Busby type shot pushing through the kicking legs, but Renoir is most concerned with situating the dance in the time and place of the story, making it ABOUT the characters.

  3. I too prefer later period Renoir to The Rules of the Game.. Andrew Sarris says that French Cancan is Renoir’s film about his own art — his 8 1/2 as it were. The way Gabin puts a show together matches Renoir’s own techniques as it were.

  4. I think that’s precisely what it is.

    I don’t say I necessarily PREFER late Renoir — but I do think some of the lesser-known films make an easier and more appealing entry point than the late thirties classics.

  5. I don’t think Renoir ever made a bad film and I think his career as several entry points. These days THE RIVER is perhaps a more popular entry point or as popular as Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game.

    Of all film-makers, Renoir is closest to Shakespeare on account of the sheer richness of his works.

  6. Christopher Says:

    very young Jean Renoir would have got a few good eyefuls of the Paris we all love ,living with his famous Dad….If that Can Can clip dosen’t make you smile wide you must have a heart made of petrified mummy poo..I envy you…Paris in the Spring!

  7. Christopher Says:

    One of my fave Huston’s…continues to be overlooked

  8. Ossie Morris’ Technicolor is absolutely stunning in this. He’s somebody who should be more celebrated — that he could do this AND The Hill is just awe-inspiring.

  9. Christopher Says:

    They put some work into trying to get a definitive color scheme..and finally a you tube clip that better shows it off.

  10. Technicolor, as embodied by Natalie Kalmus in the UK, were very resistant to the idea of any sort of diffusion. Jack Cardiff fought them over it with Michael Powell, and then Morris took over the struggle backed by Huston…

  11. Alexander Peacock Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the film David, it’s really breathtakingly beautiful.

    Please don’t leave it too long to see The Golden Coach, I think you’ll enjoy it even more. Sadly the only copies on DVD or online exist with an painfully bad drop in quality for the crucial final minutes of the film, but it’s still worth seeing. I only hope Gaumont decide to restore this one soon as they’ve announced Elena for Blu-ray so this bad girl’s the only one left.

  12. OK, The Golden Coach is next! Unless I swing back for The Crime of M Lange, which is very tempting.

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