Tuesday, November 15, 2011
#243: French Cancan
French Cancan was a pleasant surprise after the relatively unmemorable The Golden Coach. It's the middle film in Renoir's spectacle trilogy, often categorized as his films about the relationship between art and life. For me, French Cancan isn't about life so much as it is about art, specifically art for art's sake. It's also an extremely entertaining film - maybe one of the most entertaining in the Collection - making it a kind of counterbalance to the intense and tragic artist's dilemma of The Red Shoes, a film which is only French Cancan's superior if you believe that drama is inherently "Greater" than comedy. Both films revel in the question of sacrificing for your art, specifically as a woman, though The Red Shoes is certainly a more feminist interpretation of the theme (or at the very least can be easily perceived in that way).
French Cancan, on the other hand, chooses to celebrate the choice of the artist rather than wallow in its sacrifices. Jean Gabin (who is at the top of his game here) provides the message of the film quite clearly in the final moments as his budding star is on the verge of leaving before her big debut, threatening to quit if she can't have him exclusively. Rather than say anything to make the show go on, Gabin clearly explains that no one can have him, because he belongs to his art. Rather than degrade or demean Nini, his honesty has freed her to make her own decision about what matters in her life. Her decision, coming after such a speech (and such a film, in which Renoir lays out the best case for entertainment at face value since Sullivan's Travels), is not surprising but it is validating and invigorating. What makes it especially appealing is the lack of pretentiousness which can so often sink a film about the "importance" of art. French Cancan does not argue that art is a valuable pursuit because of the impact it has on the outside world (though certainly this can be a persuasive argument). It focuses on the urge within the artist to create - at the expense of everything else in their life and regardless of the impact of their work on the outside world.
Despite this powerful and elegant statement, Renoir's French Cancan is not a weighty film, but a profound pastry, that light and effortless end product which belies its skill and labor. The love affairs at the center are archetypal but insightful and thoroughly entertaining, and Renoir's hand is almost imperceptible but purposeful. The spectacle of the final sequence when the Moulin Rouge is finally opened is especially impressive but the whole film crackles with 50s cinema energy reminiscent of another technicolor masterpiece set in Paris from that decade, Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris. It's a joy to watch, and for me ranks high among Renoir's films despite its relatively gentle touch.