Renoir’s musical-romance is full of colour, schmaltz and spectacle, marked by some astonishing sequences of dance choreography and editing.
Dir. Jean Renoir
1955 | France | Comedy/Musical/Romance | 102 mins | 1.37:1 | French
NC16 (passed clean) for some sexuality
Cast: Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Felix
Plot: This comedy-drama chronicles the revival of Paris’ most notorious dance as it tells the story of a theater producer who turns a humble washerwoman into a star at the Moulin Rouge.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Alliance Francaise – first published 27 Jun 2015)
Jean Renoir’s French Cancan is a Technicolor feast, a remarkable musical romance that is not ashamed of its schmaltzy drama and exaggerated performances. It celebrates the art of entertainment, whatever that may be, and asks of us to immerse ourselves in the colourful spectacle.
Jean Gabin plays Henri Danglard, an upper-class theatre master who is down and out. In an attempt to revive his fortunes, he plucks a talented young woman from the obscurity of laundry cleaning to become a star of his new space – the Moulin Rouge.
Francoise Arnoul plays this woman (her name is Nini) in a performance of physical prowess and emotional vulnerability. In perhaps the film’s most remarkable sequence, the climax that lasts as many as twenty minutes of sustained, infectious energy, we see Arnoul and other dance extras revive and perform the ‘French cancan’ in front of hundreds of people.
“Come see me in the Casbah!”
It’s a chaotic sight, but one full of splendour and excitement. The dance choreography and the editing employed to maximize the physicality of the performance are astonishing to see. I think it’s fair to say that the climax shows why Renoir is warmly regarded as a master even in his silver years.
As a period piece, French Cancan is not so much about vividly recreating a long lost time, but a rekindling of the past – of French low-brow entertainment and its bourgeois simplicity (and playful crassness). Obviously shot on a sound stage with matte paintings providing the film’s exterior backdrop, the film is set up to be intentionally theatrical, rather than cinematic.
There’s a good mix of comedy and drama, but what holds the narrative together is Danglard’s single-minded pursuit of the arts through his womanizing of his star performers. Gabin’s superb performance gives us a man who not only masks his loneliness with ambition, but his romantic failures with the thrill of new (women) discoveries.
Renoir’s film continues to entertain, and in lists of best Technicolor movies ever made, this is often unfairly neglected.