Jean Renoir's 1953 The Golden Coach begins with the simultaneous arrival, at a remote, 18th-century Spanish outpost in Peru, of a coach made of solid gold - intended for use by the viceroy (Duncan Lamont) at official functions of the state - and a traveling Italian commedia dell'arte troupe whose star is the tempestuous beauty Camilla (Anna Magnani). Like the troupe's manager Felipe (Paul Campbell) and the colony's celebrity matador Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), the viceroy soon falls in love with Camilla. This colony, however, is one in which the Catholic Church holds the reins of power, and actors are not necessarily esteemed in clerical eyes. When the viceroy makes an extravagant gift of the golden coach to Camilla, turmoil ensues.
The Golden Coach was the first of a loose trilogy of films made by Renoir following his return to Europe from America, where he had worked during the war. The theme of all three films (the others are French Cancan and Elena and Her Men) is Renoir's lifelong preoccupation with the ways in which the life of the theater mirrors that of the world beyond the proscenium arch, and in The Golden Coach this theme finds its most magnificent expression within the trilogy, and perhaps the most magnificent of any film. In this highly stylized and artificial world, the actors perform on- and off-stage, the viceroy and assorted nobility within the colonial government perform for their subjects and for one another, and the distinction between performance and life dissolves into a richly layered construction of artifice. The mechanics of the narrative click and whirl like clockwork, so that you're caught up in the dynamics of this deconstruction of reality with an ease that belies Renoir's supreme mastery. His drama builds gradually into theater - even the sets become more formalized - until, somewhere midway in the film, Camilla announces to her audience that act two has concluded; from that moment forward all the world is a stage.
It's a wonderful conceit, and at its core is a performance from Magnani just as golden and gaudy as the coach that nearly coaxes her from the stage. As a commedia dell'arte comedienne, she's perfectly cast - Renoir reports that the film was largely built around her - and she shades this central performance brilliantly as she interacts with the viceroy and his court, so that she never comes completely out of her stage character. In the perfectly conceived final scene - a daring blending of theater and reality that in other hands might have seemed archly experimental - she renounces the love of the men who are mad for her in preference of her true love: theater. Magnani, alone on a stage, and acknowledging that might always be, shows us a woman strong enough to make this decision even as she realizes that the choice, for show people like herself, is not entirely their own.
The Golden Coach, despite its preoccupation with the stage, is a distinctly cinematic experience. Like the other films in the trilogy, it's shot in gorgeous color and it swims in its artifice, in its stagy sets, elaborate costumes, and the ever-present Vivaldi in the score. Visually, it's dazzling. Its seamless conception largely masks its faults, chief among them a too-flowery screenplay (and one that sometimes states its themes too baldly) and wildly uneven acting in the supporting roles. Many will find it far too affected. (The film met similar complaints at the time of its release.)
But for those who are open to it, The Golden Coach provides a film experience unlike any other. The Criterion Collection has released the entire trilogy of films (including the English language version of The Golden Coach - the film was shot in French, English, and Italian versions simultaneously - that Renoir is said to have preferred) with a wealth of extras almost as extravagant as the coach itself. Renoir scholars, lovers of theater, and true cineastes are urged to take this ride.
Aka L'Carrosse d'or.