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French Cancan (Jean Renoir) 1955
Whatever might be said about Jean Renoir’s musical comedy French Cancan, it must be said first that it doesn’t seem prototypically French. Its frenzy of color, excitement, and nonstop musical numbers makes it feel more like Hollywood product than your average French film from the fifties. If the relationships are a bit more complex than you might expect to find in this sort of film, they certainly aren’t as multifaceted as in the bulk of Renoir’s other works. French Cancan tells the tale of Danglard (Jean Gabin), an ambitious theater producer that founds the infamous Moulin Rogue, and Nini (Françoise Arnoul), the laundry girl-cum-dancer that catches his eye, and most of the clichés of the Hollywood backstage musical are represented here, though the film has a sexual frankness missing from most American musicals of the era. The film usually works wonderfully in spite of its formulaic structure. Certainly, Danglard’s inspirational and impassioned speech about the performers’ need to sacrifice themselves for their public soars, despite its familiarity. The cast, filled with misfits that could only find true happiness on the stage, is composed of types that we’ve seen countless times before, but the actors still manage to make them seem appealing.
The pastel colored Paris that French Cancan takes place in is so idealized that even the street urchins have a sense of style. Everything in the movie feels as if it’s been cranked up a notch. The characters are overly melodramatic about their love lives, but it has a comic effect, not a simplifying one. When one ditched Romeo shoots himself out of a heightened sense of despair, the film can’t bear to let him look ugly, and in the next scene he’s as dashing as ever. There seems to always be some dancing in the background of the frame in this movie, and that energy is contagious. Even when we’re not marveling at the feats of the dancers, the dancing itself seems to comment upon the action. A waltz around a jilted lover makes him seem all the more alone since frolicking couples surround him. The rehearsal scenes in which the dancers practice loosening up their legs are filled with pratfalls that make us laugh as we grow to appreciate the amount of work that goes into the preparation of the dance. When a woman spies her lover dancing with another man, it’s her sexual jealousy that charges their dance with erotic energy. Still, little can prepare us for the dazzling set piece that closes the film. In what is surely one of the best musical numbers ever filmed, the finale shows us the Moulin Rouge’s opening-night cancan, and it lets us understand the excitement of that landmark in a way that Baz Luhrmann’s film could only hint at. It’s a stunner.
* * * 1/2