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Stage and Spectacle, Three films by Jean Renoir: The Golden Coach, French Cancan, Elena and Her Men
Criterion escorts Jean Renoir into his late career with two light comedies and one comedy-drama, all in color. According to the voluminous extras in this three-disc boxed collection, the sharp social criticism of French director's Rules of the Game made him an unpopular artist in France. He spent most of the 1940s filming in Hollywood.
This is a different Renoir than the pre-war artist. Heavier themes of 1930s melodramas like The Lower Depths have been left far behind; the primary function of these shows is light entertainment - although there's some undeniable political comment in the third film. Relaxed and willing to provide quality vehicles for his star talent, Renoir's comedies may be more pleasing to general audiences more than his avowed masterpieces.
The Golden Coach
1953 / 103 min. / Le carrosse d'or
Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Nada Fiorelli, Dante, Duncan Lamont, George Higgins
Cinematography Claude Renoir
Production Designer Mario Chiari
Editor David Hawkins
Music Antonio Vivaldi
Written by Jean Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi from a play by Prosper Mérimée
Produced by Francesco Alliata
The lightest of the three films, this Italian production was shot in three versions. Renoir considered this English-language one the best. (The other two films are in subtitled French.) Italian superstar Anna Magnani learned English for the key role, and it's her show all the way. The farcial plot has her emotional actress breaking the hearts of three men through no fault of her own - naturally, she's really most in love with her audiences. There's plenty of frantic running around in an inn and a fancy estate, with her earthy troupe of actors providing a constant chorus to her romances. It's pretty funny to see courtly decorum maintained for the Viceroy's visits, even as he navigates his way through rooms full of crying babies and child performers in harlequin costumes.
Although the three hopefuls are all adequate, the only great performance is Magnani's. She makes the broad comedy seem natural - she bursts into some of the heartiest, most convincing laughter I've heard. She also has the quality of looking attractive even when her hair is an imperfect mess - the character is so informal that we wonder who helped her into some of the fancy dresses she wears.
The Golden Coach is set in Peru before the great liberators of the 1820s, but not a great deal is made of the setting. It's really about a troupe of actors out of their element (a bit like George Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights) without much comment on the colonial situation except to highlight the petty squabbles for power under the authority of the church. The soldier-suitor talks about being influenced by the idyllic society of Indians he's fighting. But they're all just plot details - we really never get more than a few feet away from the inn or the palace. Oddly, for a movie about a Golden Coach, there's no extended scene of anyone riding it anywhere. It's just a status symbol.
Criterion's transfer of The Golden Coach is very pretty but a little dense in the darker areas of the image, as if the original element were a print from a Technicolor original. Some of the harlequins, for example, wear blackface masks, which become blobs of darkness. Otherwise the image is fine. The audio really sparkles with the period music, so much that it seems false when the Peruvian natives aren't charmed by the entertaining Italian show, even though they can't understand the dialogue.
1955 / 105, 93 min. / Only the French Can
Starring Jean Gabin, Francoise Arnoul, María Félix, Anna Amendolam, Jean-Roger Caussimon, Dora Doll, Giani Esposito, Gaston Gabaroche, Michel Piccoli, Albert Rémy
Cinematography Michel Kelber
Production Designer Max Douy
Editor Borys Lewin
Original Music Georges Van Parys
Written by André-Paul Antoine and Jean Renoir
Produced by Louis Wipf
The English-sounding French Cancan is the original French title, indicating that the exhibition dance has been revived to attract tourists as well as the middle class. Unlike John Huston's Moulin Rouge, this affectionate version of the launch of the legendary night spot refrains from trying to look like a painting by anybody. It's still a comedy but a strong romantic story winds through, as tough little Nini learns some rather realistic lessons in love. After a couple of less important affairs, she becomes a dancing star and finds herself trying to be possessive over the flashy impresario who discovered her, Jean Gabin. As Peter Bogdanovich points out in his perceptive intro, instead of love conquering all, Gabin puts her in her place and reminds her that as show people their only real loyalty is to the audience. So Nini settles for being the toast of the Cancan.
Renoir structures the story well, with a number of financial and romantic intrigues building to the big performance night that serves as the third act climax. Attention is split between Nini's adventures and the various backstage travails of producer Gabin, some of which aren't much different from Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street. Whereas Warner Baxter practically collapses in an alley, no longer needed by the extravaganza he's midwifed onto the stage, Jean Gabin happily monitors his successful show from the wings, kicking his own legs in approval. He's as self-assured in the role of showman as he was suffering through Renoir's darker human-condition movies twenty years earlier.
Mexican superstar Maria Felix is Gabin's previous lady love - she's a statuesque beauty with a volatile temper and one of his tormenters, continually offering and withdrawing support between fits of jealousy. Her costuming is fairly daring as well; French Cancan has bits of nudity scattered here and there.
The color and sets are beautiful, and the line of Cancan dancers for the big finale act is dazzling. The show retains its French-ness - we watch the particulars of the dancing (including a famous audition sequence) knowing that this must all be the real McCoy and not a Hollywood recreation. Almost as an afterthought, songstress Édith Piaf warbles a tune; the opportunity to see her sing in color is not to be passed up.
Deep in the cast (as a jolly soldier) is the future big star Michel Piccoli.
Elena and Her Men
1956 / 95 min. / Elena et les hommes, Paris Does Strange Things
Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer, Juliette Gréco, Dora Doll, Albert Rémy, Magali Noël, Elina Labourdette
Cinematography Claude Renoir
Production Designer Jean André
Editor Borys Lewin
Original Music Joseph Kosma
Written by Jean Renoir and Jean Serge
This might be the least seen of the three titles; I'd heard of the English version Paris Does Strange Things only as a book entry. What seems an unlikely Ingrid Berman vehicle is a charming social farce with high-end verbal wit and plenty of mid-range slapstick. Bergman is the romantic center of a larger comedy about political shenanigans to convince a popular general to seize the government, like a latter-day Napoleon. It's loosely based on French politics of the 1880s but seems to be set (judging by the automobile on view) sometime between 1905 and 1914.
Flighty Polish princess Bergman sees nothing wrong with humoring a rich leather magnate, so as to give her impoverished family some cash during a bad financial crunch; the handlers of the general, an honest patriot (played fairly well by the handsome Marais of Beauty and the Beast) think Bergman can inspire him to overthrow the government. It's all handled as a series of romantic triangles - Bergman baits the leather millionaire, falls in love with Mel Ferrer's idle count and also holds a great affection for the general, enough to make her question her motives. Meanwhile, the general has a jealous girlfriend (Elina Labourdette of Les dames de Bois du Bologne and Lola).
Naturally, there's a second-tier farce playing under the main event. Bergman's maid Lolotte (Magali Noël of Rififi) strings along the general's valet, while making the leather heir stray from his arranged-marriage fianceé. Coming into play in the third act are some gypsies headed by the sultry Juliette Greco, soon to be a Darryl Zanuck starlet (The Roots of Heaven).
The wicked politics are presented with a knowing sophistication. War between France and Germany is threatened and the government might become a dictatorship, but the general's handlers are only concerned about their personal futures. For his cooperation in the conspiracy, the Leather King demands import tariffs on leather, and then reverses himself when he makes a joint business deal with an Austrian firm. He's already arranged his son's marriage to the daughter of a rubber baron and his best friends have cheese and wine sown up. The future of France is being determined by selfish bozos.
Bergman's role on paper almost seems to be an Evita Perón type, "inspiring" a military leader to assume leadership. But the film never sees it that way because the general in question has no ambition to be a dictator. The various machinations of the plot are always diverting, mainly because of sly details. The handlers wonder why news of their plans repeatedly reaches the general's consort, when they keep it all so secret. Then one of them finally admits he's confiding in his mistress, which in this society is like telling a gossip columnist. It's a throwaway joke like the street singer that advances the plot or the passersby who keep remarking how things were better when Napoleon III was in charge.
Swede Ingrid is fine in French and plays a more subdued character than usual - the long, trembling closeups that made her a romantic favorite (until Joan of Arc) are mostly held in check. Mel Ferrer is far livelier than he is in his American films. Deep in the cast are future faces Jean-Claude Brialy, and Francine Bergé of George Franju's Judex.
Producer Kate Elmore has assembled a short list of solid extras for the discs. (see full list below) Each separate title comes with introductions from the director, with Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich helping out. An interview-driven docu called Jean Renoir parle de son art is serialized across the three discs, with a separate docu called Hollywood and Beyond for the last feature. The liner essays are all up to the label's standard, and the packaging and menu design is an extension of the harlequin visual scheme from The Golden Coach.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Golden Coach rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: intro by Jean Renoir, intro by Martin Scorsese, docu Jean Renoir parle d son art part one, stills, essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum (on all three films) and by Andrew Sarris
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, French Cancan rates:
Supplements: intro by Peter Bogdanovich, docu Jean Renoir parle d son art part two, interview with designer Max Douy, stills, essay by Andrew Sarris
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Elena and Her Men rates:
Supplements: Intro by Jean Renoir, Docu Hollywood and Beyond, docu Jean Renoir parle d son art part three, stills, essay by Christopher Faulkner
Packaging: 3 Keep cases in card box
Reviewed: July 22, 2004