These notes accompany screenings of Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach on August 15, 16, and 17 in Theater 3.
Critic J. Hoberman was on to something when he linked Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach with Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (which we showed a few weeks ago) and Max Ophuls’s final film, Lola Montes. As Hoberman says, “The Golden Coach revels in showmanship. The screen is riotously textural—flaming velvets, lemony satins, blazing patterns of ‘natural’ light.” Since Renoir is at the very apex of the film pyramid, it is sometimes too easy to forget that he was a man perhaps equally devoted in his mind to the theater and its own peculiar set of illusions and delusions. He wrote plays like Orvet and Carola; directed plays like Julius Caesar (his favorite stage work) and The Big Knife (by his friend Clifford Odets); and adapted plays by Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths) and Prosper Merimee (The Golden Coach) for film. Movies like Nana, French Cancan, and The Golden Coach are essentially backstage dramas, and the characters in Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game put on shows. His final film was Le Petit Theatre par Jean Renoir, literally bringing an onscreen curtain down on his career.
For the film that emerged as The Golden Coach, Renoir owed almost everything to Anna Magnani. The film is based on commedia dell’Arte, known in its original incarnation as commedia all’impriviso, or comedy of improvisation. As Renoir began to prepare the film with Magnani, he discovered that she was not very good at preparing, that her gift was, indeed, for improvisation. The problem was that the film was be shot in English, a language totally foreign to the actress, and one in which (he feared) she could not improvise. His worries, despite occasional friction between them occasioned by the star’s diva-like behavior, were unfounded. Magnani, after 20 years of filming and having been schooled by Roberto Rossellini (Open City, The Miracle, The Human Voice) and Luchino Visconti (Bellissima), was an authentic professional.
“Authenticity” is the word Robin Wood cites in describing her, and he believes The Golden Coach features her greatest performance: “Magnani…, in the film’s final paradox, retreats back into the theater as the only place where, by consciously acting roles, she can be herself. It is a film that calls into question the very concept of authenticity and asks whether we do not, everywhere and always, act.” Or, as Renoir put it, “I tried to erase the borders…between the representation of reality and the reality itself. I tried to establish a kind of confusion between acting on a theatrical stage and acting in life.”
At the climax of the film, one of Camilla’s (Magnani’s) lovers addresses her: “You were not made for what is called life. Your place is among us, the actors, acrobats, mimes, clowns, jugglers. You will find your happiness only on stage each night for the two hours in which you ply your craft as an actress, that is, when you forget yourself. Through the characters that you will incarnate, you will perhaps find the real Camilla.” Francois Truffaut pointed out that this speech represented Renoir’s “artistic testament.” Truffaut also reminds us that earlier in his career, Renoir had acted in some of his films, most notably as Octave in The Rules of the Game. In that film, which is structurally similar to The Golden Coach, Octave in effect serves as an onscreen director of the action. The auteur has stepped in front of the camera, has set foot upon the stage, has entered the screen like Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. For a long time, Jean Renoir had wanted to reframe reality, to erase the borders, to establish a kind of confusion, to break the rules of the game.