There is a moment late in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, opening night for nineteenth-century Paris’s newest night club Moulin Rouge, when the audience, bedecked in tuxedos and top hats, turns to see a singer emerge from elaborate French doors. In composition, subject matter and color it is impossible to not think of the director’s father and the impressionistic scenes of high society portrayed on his canvas. This is nearly a purely visual film, perhaps Renoir the son’s most visual, seeped in brilliant technicolor it tells the story of majestic human movement and less majestic human behavior but all through the lens of bright dresses, elaborate suits and resplendent ballrooms. That its backstage story is slight is of little consequence, insubstantial plots didn’t derail The Band Wagon (1953), Gigi(1958) or any number of lovely 1950’s musicals that French Cancan can easily stand beside.
The movie stars Jean Gabin as Danglard, a sly theater owner with a taste for entertainment and women. His mistress is the current attraction at his struggling outfit, Lola (María Félix), a belly dancer. One night he finds himself in a dive bar dancing with the alluring Nini (Françoise Arnoul) and an idea comes over him. He’ll sell his place and open a bigger one with the draw being the démodé cancan dance. He figures he can revive the dance and entice high-society to frequent his place if they feel like it’s old-fashioned. He enlists Nini to be one of his cancan girls, to the destructive jealousy of both Lola and Nini’s beau. The unsettling subplot of Renoir’s otherwise airy and playful story is the lengths to which Danglard will go to get the best show. Relationships are wrecked, families broken up; he gains the capital for his new theater by essentially giving Lola to a backer. It has to be noted that the women are more than complicit in this, they either want to be on the stage (Nini) or be financially taken care of (Lola) but there are some innocent bystanders left in Danglard’s wake. Perhaps that’s the pull of show business. Nini enlists a rich prince to put up some of the funds for Moulin Rouge by stringing him along; when its revealed that she is with Danglard the prince nearly kills himself.
The movie isn’t concerned in truly dealing with its character’s dangerous ambitions, it’s far too happy being cinematic confection and that it is, with its dances and bizarre performers ranging from a stage shy whistler to a cameo by Edith Piaf. There’s a disasterous public blow-up as Lola’s jealous confronts Nini in a crowd that hilariously gets out of control, harkening to the party in Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), I could almost see the butler in the previous film demanding “Which one?” when asked to stop the farce. Part of the movie’s charm has to be contributed to Gabin who is far too alluring to have you notice his sometimes-snaky behavior. Gabin was a legend of French cinema when French Cancan was released, making some of the countries finest movies before the war, some for Renoir. He is so graceful in French Cancan, so enticing that he can be forgiven for what would otherwise be considered womanizing and reckless avidity because he believes in something; the theater. He had a dark side as a performer, one that was on display in another movie from 1954, Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, but you won’t find it here. Watch the breathless final cancan number. Danglard, who has been nervously watching from backstage during the entire evening, sits calmly in a chair far removed from the stage. He knows the routine so well he knows what the oohs and aahs are for without even watching the performance. Gabin creates a man of vision witnessing his creation with just his ears.
Renoir’s mastery as a filmmaker is present as are his pet interests of humanism and class differences. Watch his attention to human behavior in crowd scenes, the competing sects at the raucous dance club, the pettiness and abandon of the dance rehearsal room (something that distinguishes French Cancan from its American musical counterparts is the casual nudity), the hive mind of the audience. There may be no better coordinator of how people behave than Jean Renoir. Nini and her prince (Giani Gabaroche) share a scene in a hospital that echos a famous scene in Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) but in reverse. Instead of bemoaning the crumbling lines between the classes the prince relates at the distance between himself and common people.
French Cancan is not one of Renoir’s masterpieces but it never fails to amaze me how much better the lesser work of the great directors is than even the best stuff other filmmakers. During the movie, I thought a lot about The Artist, the Academy’s best picture of 2011, because they have similar stories but Renoir is so much better at introducing darker or melodramatic elements without completely derailing the tone of the whole picture. French Cancan is a lively experience, one that, like its main character only wants to entertain and will stop at nothing to do so.