Henri Danglard is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor.
As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It’s not long before it’s opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.
As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.
While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman’s compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.
Jean Gabin, one of France’s all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world’s backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.
As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard’s productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.
Fans of Renoir’s work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental, emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel).
Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the “normal” life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.
Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likeability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir’s own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.
An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir’s native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.