French Cancan Review
The ‘French’ in French Cancan is a significant. The 1954 feature represented Jean Renoir’s return to filmmaking on his native soil following a fifteen-year absence. He fled the country following La Règle du jeu and the German invasion of France, arriving in Hollywood where he continued to make pictures. Some of these retained a European flavour: The Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from Oscar Mirabeau; the “somewhere in Europe” setting of This Land of Mine; the wartime propaganda short Salute to France, co-directed with Garson Kanin. Others were distinctly American: the self-explanatory Swamp Water and The Southerner. And one, The Woman on the Beach, was a curious mix of US film noir and those films, such as Renoir’s own La Bête humaine, which prefigured the genre’s style and concerns. Post-Hollywood he would take these various blends and branch out into a more international brand of filmmaking: The River, adapted from (and by) Rumer Godden and co-financed between France, India and the US; and The Golden Coach with dialogue in three different languages, filming taking place at Cinécitta Studios and the setting being Central America. So how better to mark this genuine return to France than with a picture that delights in its country’s past? - a Technicolor period drama bristling with comedy, music and romance, and reuniting its director with his most famous star, Jean Gabin.
Older, greyer and wiser than he was in Les Bas-fonds, La Bête humaine and La Grande illusion, Gabin plays Henri Danglard, a figure loosely based on Charles Zidler (co-founder and manager of the Moulin Rouge) despite the protestations otherwise of a post-credits subtitle. As we first meet Danglard he is running the Chinese Screen, a cabaret where the patrons are more enticed by the scantily-clad female performers than they are a whistling Pierrot. He’s scraping by, but barely; entertainment is in his blood and he’ll remain in the industry until he dies, even if the sponsors are unforthcoming and the bailiffs are knocking on his door. A chance encounter with “a little laundress” (Françoise Arnoul) - and a delightful waltz between the pair - leads him to embark on his project: to revive the cancan (rechristened the French cancan as all the popular dances have English names in the 1890s) and build a theatre in which to house his revival, namely the Moulin Rouge.
What we have then is a backstage musical, a ‘let’s put on a show’ movie, yet another birth of a star before our very eyes. Holding it all together are spontaneous performances - a dance here, half a song there - and the romantic entanglements of our main players. Jealousies, infidelities and mixed loyalties all come into play: Gabin transfers his affections from María Félix to the younger Arnoul, whilst seemingly every other male performer is interested in either one or the other. This back-and-forth between various lovers fuels French Cancan’s slender narrative and is of the kind that than only be fully settled in the final moments, backstage and during opening night. If this makes the film sound like a collection of hoary old clichés then so be it. But if you were to make such a film, who better to serve as its director than Jean Renoir?
The popular image of Renoir is that of the humanist filmmaker. His work is characterised by a generosity of spirit and so it is with French Cancan. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains, rather everyone is embraced by Renoir. In certain cases this is fully understandable - Gabin is at his most genial, whilst Arnoul is amongst the loveliest of actresses he ever worked with (and I haven’t forgotten about Ingrid Bergman or Simone Simon). In others perhaps less so, especially in Félix’s case when she delivers a particularly vindictive kick to Arnoul’s shin, but this doesn’t excuse them from Renoir’s embrace. Indeed, even the smallest of characters possesses a tremendous warmth, whether it be a pair of roguish pickpockets or the couple who sit outside a restaurant and serve as an occasional miniature Greek chorus. Some are purely comic creations, others possess a more serious side, but as with La Règle du jeu fifteen years previous, there’s a tremendous command of this multi-character concoction and the potential pitfalls of the tonal shifts that could arise.
Yet whilst French Cancan is both a light comedy and an occasionally darker hued drama, it is fundamentally a romance. It is this streak which cuts deepest, informing not only the characters onscreen but also the film’s representation of the past. The Renoirs had a family home in Montmartre during Jean’s childhood, though here he opts for an entirely studio-created artifice. A tremendous amount of detail creates a veil of realism, but ultimately we know this world is created; a mixture of sensations which perhaps perfectly encapsulates the nostalgic mood Renoir was seeking. Arguably the Technicolor - now viewed fully restored and in high definition over fifty years later - only adds to both the artifice and the nostalgia, and for seasoned film fans such as myself that can only emphasise the sense of romance. This is exquisite cinema, “exuberant” to quote the disc’s sleeve. For my money it’s also the finest of Renoir’s colour features, and ranks amongst his very best.
The BFI are issuing French Cancan as a dual-format edition housing a Blu-ray and a DVD encoded for Region B/Region 2. Both discs contain identical extras and differ only in presentation. For review purposes a Blu-ray disc was supplied and is what will be considered below.
French Cancan was first released onto Blu-ray last year, by Gaumont in France. This UK edition is effectively a straightforward port of that release, making use of the same master and retaining two of its special features. As plaudits for the Gaumont have shown this is a superb looking disc, utilising the recent French restoration and surely ranking amongst the finest Blu-rays for a back catalogue feature in colour. Gaumont made use of two negatives donated by the BFI - one full-length, the other being the US cut which excised 20 minutes of material - to create their restoration. The colour was realigned, the image was stabilised, and any damage or signs of age where removed as was best possible. The results are wonderful: a pristine image with exquisite colours and tremendous clarity. There are some minor fluctuations in quality during a couple of scenes, though this amounts to no more than a slightly heavier grain or a moderate shift in brightness. Needless to say, such issues barely figure in light of the overall results. (This was my first viewing since a Channel 4 screening in 1997 and the difference between the two was immense.) As for the soundtrack here we find the original French with optional subtitles in LPCM form. Being mono it simply cannot overwhelm the viewer like fully restored 1950s Technicolor can, but there are no issues to speak of and no reason to assume we are not hearing it at its very best. A final note on the presentation worth making is that the BFI did their own authoring which may result in a slightly different bitrate to the Gaumont. I haven’t sampled the French edition so cannot comment, though everything I’ve read about that disc matches up perfectly with what I’ve seen on the UK offering.
Also present, and exclusive to this edition, is the fully illustrated booklet of the usual BFI standard. Alongside the copious production still and poster reproductions we also find the expected credits and transfer notes, a brief bio for Renoir and two essays, one by David Thompson, the other by Ginette Billard. Both are reproductions with the former having appeared in the September 2011 issue of Sight and Sound and the latter being originally published in the January 1955 issue of Films and Filming. As the difference in publication date suggests these represent alternative perspectives: Thompson’s take is one of context and criticism, whilst Billard provides an on-set report and interview with the director.