Directed by Jean Renoir
Running time: 102 minutes
powder-puff (adj.): of, relating to, or being a traditionally male activity or event done or played by women.
In one sequence during the grand blowout scene of FRENCH CANCAN, we witness a private moment in the life of cabaret impresario and quiet symposiarch Henri Danglard, played by an unflappable Jean Gabin. He’s slouched regally in a chair backstage while a gaggle of can-can dancers shine the front room with their pantalettes. Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop rings through the hall. Danglard, still comfortably seated, lifts his left leg. Then kicks his right. Then his left. This sublime instant is interrupted momentarily when an observer enters the room. Briefly; and once again, he finds himself alone and kicking.
A cool blue color stained the walls of boulangeries and shops in 1890s provincial France. Its first manufacturing took place nearby, earlier in the century. Powdery cobalt salts are sintered into this most Frankish of pigments. The yellows, reds and pinks, too, have a fine, dusty finish. These colors can be inhaled. Like a brisk walk through a haze of brilliant concrete dust. Like Renoir’s depiction of Holi, the Vedic festival of color, in THE RIVER (1951). Tonight’s director seems bent on envisioning essences in a particulate form. Color, yes, but modernity too. Before the erection of the Moulin Rouge, great clouds of Montmartrian dust bellow from a controlled demolition. The effete patrons of a nearby café take a deep breathe and humorously, but seriously, say “that’s progress.”
Perhaps desire, too, is an invisible particulate. Whatever residue it is that coats Danglard’s lungs, he suffuses into the women around him. Françoise Anoul plays Nini, an effervescent ingenue of limited means, whom Danglard handpicks to become an expert of that lascivious battement. Lola, Danglard’s combative and jealous mistress, gets her va-va-voom from Maria Félix’ aye-aye-aye. Then there’s the siren timbres of Eugénie Buffet given voice by French diva, Édith Piaf. Danglard takes many of them as lovers, promising nothing more than to make them performers. In once scene, Danglard monologues this notion when Nini suggests they commit to each other. The detail and gravity with which he forecasts her eventual unhappiness articulates the film’s highest polemic moment. It’s so American, so un-French, to suggest that maybe it was a personal flourish for M. Renoir, so I won’t.
Talk to me long enough and you might hear me say, “I inhale cinema and exhale life.” Renoir’s artifice in FRENCH CANCAN is mountain air. This second entry in his “art trilogy” takes thematic cues from THE GOLDEN COACH (1952): relationships between performer/ audience, lover/instructor, upper/lower class are painted with soft colored strokes by lenser Michel Kelber, in their first and only collaboration.
24 August 2013