French Cancan Movie Review
Everything about French Cancan is, in fact, exquisitely French. (In this the film echoes its director's wish to reconnect with his public, having left France for America following the public vilification of 1939's Rules of the Game and having returned to his homeland with this film.) The movie tells the fictionalized story of the opening of Paris's notorious Moulin Rouge, an event marked by the rehabilitation of the scandalous cancan, a dance of a previous era that revealed rather much more of the dancers' lower halves than was deemed proper. In this fantasy Paris, an impresario named Danglard (Jean Gabin), magically gifted with the ability to spot talent among common working men and women and steer them toward their deserved fame, happens upon a young woman named Nini (Françoise Arnoul) who exhibits no aspirations, few inhibitions, and a real gift for dance. His attention to - and subsequent affair with - Nini arouses the mercurial jealousy of the statuesque belly dancer Lola (María Félix), whom he previously nurtured and with whom he is currently sharing a bed; add Danglard's money man, also in love with Lola, Nini's working class boyfriend, a prince who loves Nini, and assorted dancers, mothers, rival artists, and best friends, and you have a love roundelay of operatic breadth.
Love, of course, is France's national preoccupation, at least so far as the big screen goes, but what makes French Cancan so especially Gallic is the sophistication of its details - not just the champagne cocktails and acres of lace, but the respect the man on the street accords such artistes as a whistler Danglard discovers, an aging dance instructor who still is made up like a chorus girl, the belly dancer who insists on royal treatment and whose criminal displays of temper are explained away as manifestations of passion and artistic temperament. This sophistication extends to Danglard's romantic indiscretions; American audiences, in particular, may be surprised at the very non-Hollywood denouement of the movie's central romance.
More than anything else, French Cancan is about the life of the theater and of those held in its sway. Its songs emerge in that context - before audiences at the Moulin Rouge and other nightclubs - and its abiding central conflict, for all its characters, is the tension of resolving the life of the stage with "real" life. Renoir suggests that, for those compelled to entertain, the distinction is hopelessly blurred; his Nini, whose story the film most closely follows, finds in the film's finale that the stage is the only place in which she truly lives.
Renoir was, of course, among the very greatest of directors, and his French Cancan unfolds with a marvelous ease. The dance numbers are enviably clear, the characters sketched with a master's economy. The film's finale, in which the Moulin Rouge opens triumphantly with the much-anticipated cancan, is the sort of screen marvel of which no director today is capable: it's frantic yet deftly controlled, personal yet grandly conceived, and it leaves you elated. It's a true spectacle; Renoir suggests that, potentially, for those involved in theater, all of life is.
The Criterion Collection has made French Cancan available as part of a three-disc DVD set that includes two more of his contemporaneous films that examine his life-as-theater aesthetic: The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men. A virtual galaxy of special features place the films in context and provide a wealth of supporting materials.
Aka French Can-Can.