These notes accompany screenings of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan on October 31 and November 1 and 2 in Theater 3.
As regular followers of this series know, I can’t get enough of Jean Renoir. I feel a stronger emotional kinship with him than with any other filmmaker, except possibly Charles Chaplin or John Ford. Unlike those two gentlemen, however, Renoir had a wider range, a greater ability to work brilliantly in diverse genres over a sustained period of time. If someone asked me to recommend two or three essential or seminal Chaplin or Ford films, I would be less hesitant than I would be with Renoir, whose thoughts and feelings seem universal, and whose films seem to encompass virtually all that is Cinema—and life itself.
In the chapter of his autobiography, My Life and My Films, that discusses French Cancan, Renoir writes, “I got nearer and nearer to the ideal method of directing, which consists in shooting a film as one writes a novel. The elements by which the author is surrounded inspire him. He absorbs them.” (Elsewhere, he wrote that “an artist only exists if he succeeds in inventing his own little world.”) Thus, he goes on to celebrate the fact that he was reunited with Jean Gabin, who had appeared in three of Renoir’s 1930s masterpieces: Les Bas Fonds, La Grande Illusion, and La Bete Humaine. (“I am grateful to the cinema for having given me this comradeship. I love Gabin and he loves me.”) Renoir’s soul and psyche were also steeped in La Belle Epoque, the glorious 19th-century era he commemorated lovingly in Renoir, My Father, his best-selling biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “Broadly speaking,” Jean wrote, French Cancan “is an act of homage to our calling, by which I mean show-business.” More than ever before or later, Renoir was immersed at the time in theater. He had completed The Golden Coach with Anna Magnani, which, like French Cancan, was a backstage drama. He had just staged Julius Caesar with Jean-Pierre Aumont and Paul Meurisse (then appearing in Clouzot’s Diabolique and soon to star in Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass) at the 15,000-seat arena in Arles, and his own comedy, Orvet, in Paris with Leslie Caron and Meurisse. He was also planning to direct a French stage version of his friend Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, which was about to be released as a film by Robert Aldrich.
So, according to Jean Renoir’s own auteur theory, he absorbed all of these stimuli. He was also by now deeply immersed in color after The River and The Golden Coach, and it is hard to think of a film, even in Hollywood’s flamboyant 1950s that is quite so ravishing. One might suggestively say “garish,” but that misses the whole point of evoking the garishness of the era. At the same time the sedately romantic, bittersweet courtship scene between the prince and the laundress/dancer on the Montmartre hillside recalls the lovely intimacy of A Day in the Country. The climactic scenes where we cannot be sure that the show will, indeed, go on hark back to the hectic denouements of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. Throughout the film, Jean Gabin, who Nick Pinkerton recently described as having “conveyed an entire philosophy in his carriage, as essentially French as the Parisian shrug,“ mostly lends a passive presence to all the action. Ultimately, it is all Renoir, although, from what we know of his devotion to family and friends, one doubts that he shared Danglard’s (Gabin’s) dictum that the only things that mattered to him were those he created.
Still, French Cancan has so much energy, and its ending is so (almost exhaustingly) exuberant, that one cannot doubt that this film mattered a great deal to Jean Renoir.