French CanCan

French CanCan (1955 France 105 mins)

Source: Heritage Films Prod Co: Franco-London Films/Jolly Films Prod: Louis Wipf for Franco London Films Dir, Scr: Jean Renoir from an idea of André-Paul Antoine Phot: Michel Kelber Assist Dir: Serge Vallin, Pierre Kast, Jacques Rivette Ed: Boris Lewin Art Dir: Max Douy Mus: Georges Van Parys Choreography: G. Grandjean

Cast: Jean Gabin, Maria Félix, Françoise Arnoul, Jean-Roger Caussimon, Michel Piccoli, Max Dalban, Gaston Modot, Valentine Tessier, Edith Piaf, Patachou, and the voice of Cora Vaucaire.

Renoir is Impressionism multiplied by the cinema.

– André Bazin (1)

The grandeur of this ode to the physical pleasures lies first in its prodigious archaism, a vigorous, aggressive archaism. .The feverish panic of the final cancan more than makes up for the lapses in the film. In this fury of girls and undergarments we can see the most triumphant hymn the cinema has ever dedicated to its own soul, the movement which by breaking the rules, creates them.

– Jacques Rivette (2)

The last great classical musical and the only one with subtitles, Jean Renoir’s French CanCan has become my favorite – I am always deeply moved by it in ways I am not sure I want to understand. It stands with Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis (1945) as definitive films about theatre, performance, and art. It is part of a trilogy of Renoir films about the past, love, and artifice (the others are Le Carrosse d’or/The Golden Coach, 1953, and Elena et les hommes/Paris Does Strange Things, 1956). It is one of a cycle of la belle epoque films set at the close of the 19th century and it is fiercely nostalgic for the world it creates in that past: Renoir fashions a time and a world he desires. It is also Renoir’s film about his father Auguste and his father’s friends, the French Impressionist painters and their Paris, their bohemian Montmartre quarter, and it is almost about Renoir’s childhood: it is about his dream of what the world was like just before, just on the edge of his childhood, just before he could partake of it (in this it is precisely like Robert Altman’s Kansas City, 1996). It is light years from political correctness and Renoir, no puritan, revels in it.

Paris, 1889. Zizi Danglard (Jean Gabin) is a theatrical entrepreneur: producer, director, talent scout, manager, boulevardier, lover, hustler. Most importantly, he is a visionary: the film is the story of Danglard putting on a new show, as is usual in backstage musicals. However, it is more: from the theatrical world around him, from bits and pieces of music hall, mime, cooch dancer shows, popular music and dance of the period, he makes a new sort of theatre. In a risqué neighborhood, he razes an old dancehall and builds a new entertainment space, The Moulin Rouge (so far, this is all historical fact). He resurrects long out-of-fashion dances, the chahut and the cancan, and trains a company of young women in these forgotten specialties. He battles for backing (“We artists are at the mercy of the men with money”, he says) and contends with temperamental performers and jealous lovers. Just at the climax-the spectacular cancan-his star, Nini, catches him in one of his infidelities (he has three lovers and is setting up a fourth in the last seconds of the film; but then, Nini has three lovers too, and so does Danglard’s older mistress, Lola, La Belle Abbesse) (3) and refuses to perform. It’s a beautiful setup for the classic director’s backstage pep talk and Renoir provides the best I have seen. And then-the cancan, the big finish which, thankfully, never seems to finish. The spectacle out front: a new dance and a new theatre space in which the audience and the performers are completely mixed together; and backstage as Danglard, the visionary, sits and listens to the music and contemplates his vision, not needing to see its realization, delicately tracing a dance step with one leg. (4) All the vanities and deceits, betrayals and pretensions, jealousy and posturing, which constitute the plot, are eclipsed by the story: that nothing can possibly be as important as creating theatre. Raymond Durgnat sees it differently in his excellent account of the film: French CanCan is a film without suspense because whether the show goes on or not “is secondary to our observation of personal style, particularly in defeat”. (5) He is right too. There are many ways of being right about French CanCan.

In the second scene of the film, all the major characters, high and low, meet in a dancehall, a dive whose patrons are pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets (one of whom is Michel Piccoli when he had hair). They have a drink, they dance (Gabin too, very energetically). As they will throughout the film, the characters take turns, sometimes serving as the performance, then serving as the audience to performance. By the end of the scene, all the relationships for the story have been set and all its forthcoming events foreshadowed and enabled. This is largely and economically achieved through the common currency of the film, a thick texture of gestures, details, glances and gazes, of which Renoir is a remarkable observer. It is here that Danglard’s vision begins to form; in this scene he meets the young laundress he will make into a star (Francoise Arnoul, a French cinema sex kitten soon to be overtaken by Brigitte Bardot), and it is in fact the very dance hall he buys to transform into The Moulin Rouge.

The film’s theatricality is such that Renoir chooses to shoot his Montmartre totally in the studio rather than the streets (and achieves remarkable visual effects). It is also in a sense a great animated film: without duplicating or imitating them, Renoir has brought into movement, into cinematic life, the body (and the spirit) of the Impressionist painters.

Endnotes

  1. André Bazin, Jean Renoir, edited by Francois Truffaut, translated by W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973, p. 135. First appeared in Cahiers du cinéma n.47, 1955. Everyone should read this seminal essay.
  2. Bazin, p. 283.
  3. Among the myriad wonderful moments of the film, Danglard’s older mistress, in her jealousy and anger, has attacked him by taking away his funding. She mocks him, then asks if he has anything to say. He says, “You’re the queen of all bitches-and there always be a part for you in my shows.”
  4. For its last shot, the film cuts from warm, rich, bright visual interior of The Moulin Rouge to a longshot of the dark, deserted nighttime street out front. A very intoxicated man-Jean Renoir, in fact, although he is too far away to be identified-capers in the street. Like Danglard, he too is alone with his vision at the moment of its tangible creation.
  5. Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, p. 308. His discussion of the construction and composition of the cancan dance sequence is excellent.

About The Author

Rick Thompson co-edits Screening the Past; his interviews with Samuel Fuller appeared in Film Comment and Movietone News c. 1976.