Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Video Vault: French Cancan

French Cancan
1956 - Jean Renoir
NR - 105 minutes
Vault Rating: 6

Jean Gabin - Henri Danglard
Francoise Arnoul - Nini
Maria Felix - Lola
Anna Amendola - Esther Georges
Jean-Roger Caussimon - Baron Walter

Netflix Summary:  Nineteenth century Paris comes vibrantly alive in director Jean Renoir's exhilarating tale of the opening of the world-renowned Moulin Rouge.  Jean Gabin plays the wily impresario Danglard, who makes the cancan all the rage while juggling the love of two beautiful women - an Egyptian belly-dancer and a naive working girl turned  cancan star.  This celebration of life, art and the City of Light includes a rare cameo by Edith Piaf.

Well.  The Netflix summary above should be blushing.  While the film and its auteur are considered among the cinema greats, the "exhilarating" film, to me, only managed to climb into the range of pleasantly affecting.  So why bother?  Read on.

Perhaps I was asking too much of myself.  For example, this was a musical comedy.  Not something Vault generally prizes to begin with.  But in French with subtitles I found it difficult to enjoy the humor while absorbing the actors while they gave their pleasantly affecting performances.

One of the few times subtitles have affected my enjoyment of a film.  Part of this difficulty also arises from some of the film's strengths.   The sets were interesting to look at and my eye was constantly wandering to one pleasantly affecting detail or another which Renoir cleverly litters about his frames.  So.  Grain of salt.

And the way of the film takes a while to fall into.  It's a bit of a slapstick almost quasi-musical-comedy, so getting into the vibe (in French) takes some patience.   I'm sure, at the time in France, this picture was the shizzle.  That it holds its own nearly six decades hence is a testament to its quality.

More interesting is that this is a film less about the famed Paris nightclub and more about those who made it tick.  This film studies its show-people in a way that is very realistic.  Very straightforward. Vault is not much for show-people films either.  But the two principles, Danglard and Nini, have two story arcs that are surprisingly unsentimental.

Danglard is the man behind the Moulin Rouge and, as a finder of talent, and a weaver of dreams, as a lover of women and a showman, he draws beautiful people into his sphere and uses them to create.  They play in his world.

And this struck me as honest.  Having a good deal of experience in theater and having performed, written and directed plays for decades, I could identify strongly with Danglard in the film's climactic sequence.  Nothing gets him off like the audience's joy and approval.

Nini's character arc is also strong and honest, tracing a path from ingenue to showgirl in a way that most musical comedies can't grasp.

The rest of the film is about various trysts and relationships that hit and miss.  Couples don't just wind up together to give us the obligatory happily ever after.  In fact, the speed with which its subjects fall in and out of love is almost cartoonishly reminiscent of, say, a Shakespeare farce.  Like the cancan, it is a weird dance to pull off gracefully.

And legit cancan, pulled off recklessly with a cheeky amount of fishnets and bloomers, high kicks and flying splits (Oooh!  Doesn't that HURT???), certainly can can bring a smile to your face.  Keep those hemlines high, girls!

In all, the film is worth your while.  As I reflect back over "French Cancan," I'm thinking a second look would find me notching my Vault Rating a tad higher.

by Shawn Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

Now Hear THIS!!