Saturday, March 24, 2018

At NYC's FIAF this week, a lesser-known (and rightly so) Jean Renoir film, FRENCH CANCAN

Even great filmmakers can have off-days, one example being Jean Renoir, he of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, who made a movie entitled FRENCH CANCAN back in 1955 that begins with the disclaimer that nothing we will see should be taken as having anything to do with real life, events or people.

Smart move, as much that we see and hear smacks of enormous, often overdrawn artifice.

Directed and written/adapted (from an idea by André-Paul Antoine) by Renoir (shown at left), the movie takes place in the 1890's as Henri Danglard, a producer of something you might, if you were particularly gracious, call "theater," attempts to open a new night club to be named, yes, the Moulin Rouge, which will make its mark by reintroducing a by-then-retro dance called the Cancan, now to be rechristened as the French Cancan.

Because Henri is played by that fabulous French star Jean Gabin, one of whose many gifts included the inability to overact or deliver a performance that was anything less than real, he is one of a very few of the cast members who manage this seemingly (here, at least) difficult feat.

Among M. Gabin's other gifts (the actor is shown above) was his unassuming grace and believability as a ladies' man, and here he plays it big-time, with a long-term mistress (the haughtily glamorous Maria Felix, below), plenty of past conquests, and a possible new one on the horizon -- an adorable little laundress whom he meets one evening at a local dance hall and who has quite a knack for movement and dancing.

That laundress is played by Françoise Arnoul (below) with charm and wit enough to match M. Gabin, and her character soon has suitors enough to vie with Gabin: She's engaged to the local baker, is chased after by a super-wealthy foreign aristocrat, and eventually falls for her hero and mentor, who now has her training to perform in his new club.

This rondelay of love matches and mis-matches comes to a proper and quite fittingly adult, philosophical and emotional conclusion that features a terrific speech by Gabin about theater, performing, producing, love, marriage, responsibility and all the rest. This alone makes the movie worth watching, but the final 20 minutes or so, devoted to the grand opening of the Moulin Rouge, the various musical numbers performed (one of these by Edith Piaf!), and of course the final one involving the cancan are the absolute knock-out we've been waiting for -- and to which the entire movie has been building. (It's rather like seeing those famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes -- but with a lot more heart and soul.)

If this sounds some kind of "rave" notice, indeed it is, but it must also be accompanied by a major caveat. The first 40 minutes or so of this film is quite a slough to get through. While the candy-colored sets are often lovely, there is also an over-abundance of short scenes that exist simply to make a point and further the plot. This is clunky filmmaking. Many of the subsidiary roles are overacted and too obviously written, as well -- making use of a number of performers who were popular at the time but whose shtick, for that is what it is, does not hold up at all well today.

There is literally so much of this going on so often (as with the three "shticklers" above) that the movie soon seems unduly noisy and tiresome. My spouse gave up on it around that 40-minute point. TrustMovies persisted and is very glad he did because that shtick soon lessens even as the love relationships strengthen, character comes to the fore, and genuine performing takes over -- both in the acting and in the musical performances themselves.

That lengthy and super-engaging finale features Ms Felix (above) as Catherine the Great -- doing a strip-tease and a shimmy! -- and includes a simply lovely song (that I believe was also featured briefly in Baz Luhrman's crappy Moulin Rouge), and lots more. So do stick with French Cancan, and it'll probably win you over, too.

One other note: If you place yourself back in time of 1955, the film's release here in the USA must have knocked the uptight American audience for a loop in terms of its attitude toward love and sex, as when the heroine, expecting to have to turn herself over sexually to her new producer/mentor, instead willingly loses her virginity to her baker fiancé (above) so that she can have her first sexual experience with a man she actually cares for. The film's mature and thoughtful take on sexuality and its place in society is something that I'm afraid a rather too-large percentage of American audiences may still have to grow up and into. The attitudes belonging to fundamentalist religions continue to apply here in the USA -- and in far too much of our world.

French Cancan screens in French with English subtitles at FIAF in New York City this coming Tuesday, March 27, at 4 and 7:30pm, as part of FIAF's continuing CinéSalon series of classic of French cinema with Olivier Barrot. M. Barrot, noted journalist and TV personality, has curated the current series and will appear for a 30-minute talk at 6:45 that evening to share his insights into the social and cultural contexts of the film. His talk will be open to audiences of either the 4:30 or 7pm screening. For more information and/or tickets, simply click here.

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