Sunday, 7 October 2012

French Cancan (1954) - Jean Renoir

I love Jean Renoir. He was without a doubt one of the greatest French directors ever, always pushing the possibilities of what can be achieved with a camera and a reel of film to it's limits. He was also one of the great humanitarian film makers, concocting stories that were not only entertaining but also moving, and in hindsight incredibly poignant about their particular moment in history. During his thirties heyday he belted out classic after classic (Boudu sauvé des eaux, Toni, La chienne, La bête humaine, La grande illusion), culminating with his masterpiece La règle du jeu in 1939. He continued to make great films after this, but they were a little more patchy, and almost never managed to reach the stature of that earlier body of work.

In 1951 he made his first colour film - Le fleuve, which was shot on location in India and could easily lay claim to being his great lost masterpiece. So that little around the houses introduction brings us up to French Cancan, which is about the birth of the Moulin Rouge. French screen legend Jean Gabin plays Henri Danglard the theater owner who puts everything he's got into getting his dream venue off of the ground. Françoise Arnoul is Nini a laundry worker who Danglard discovers can dance, and decides to revive the titular dance using her as his principle dancer. Weaved amongst that are loads of thinly sketched out characters - a duo of pickpockets, an ex dancer now down on her luck, a prince about to become a king, basically the rich and the poor all mixing it up in Montmartre.

When I was a kid (bear with me this is going somewhere), my nan used to buy these little sponge cup cakes that were covered in brightly colored icing. They looked gorgeous but tasted of nothing special. That's what French Cancan reminded me of more than anything else. It's a good looking film, full of colour (Technicolor at that), but ultimately quite empty. The characters are all surface, and there seems to be very little depth to any of them. Nini gets some stuff to do and is probably the best overall role in the film. Gabin is severely underused for an actor of his talents, with only one scene at the end of the film where he really comes to life. Which only compounds the films problem, since the speech he gives just reminds one of what is lacking from French Cancan.

 On the plus side we do get a couple of numbers sung by Edith Piaf, and the film itself is likable enough in a Sunday afternoon sort of way. If it had been made by some lesser talent then I probably would have enjoyed it more, which is terrible to say, but is the truth. This is Renoir after all. The sets are great, but look like sets and are ultimately too brightly lit. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that it was filmed in Technicolor, although I have nothing to back that up with. Surely the Moulin Rouge should be darker? In Renoir's film it looks like a giant well lit soundstage. But hey maybe that was his intention so I'm not going to knock him for it. As I said though it's a hollow experience, Danglard beds anything that moves, there are lots of scenes of people drinking and shouting, plus love triangles galore - none of which hold the attention in the way these plot devices should. Still at ninety minutes it flits past easily enough, but is that what you want from a Renoir film? I think not.

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