This is a gorgeous film. It’s gorgeous in its use of colour and the sumptuous costumes. In addition to these qualities that it shares with other Technicolor musicals of the Golden Age, such as Oklahoma or Carousel, being French it offers a slightly more hard-hitting dramatic prospect. Renoir, in his triumphant post-war return to French cinema, created this tribute – almost a love letter – to la belle époche Paris.
In it the young dancer Nini (Françoise Arnoul) the daughter of a laundress in Montmartre, is discovered by impresario Danglard (Jean Gabin). Whilst making her name on the Parisian cabaret circuit and learning the vivacious and controversial ‘Cancan’, she becomes Danglard’s lover.
Renoir’s narrative is tantalising and multi-textured. There’s a completeness to the characters and situations that’s not necessarily a trademark of the musical comedy. Nini’s situation is one of crucial decisions. She is placed in Renoir’s tangle of the desired woman who must choose her path of most satisfaction – conflicting lovers vying for her attention and favours. There’s never a sordid moment however; this is a poem of mesmerising, subtle visuals.
The creation of the scenes is meticulous and the tributes to the French chanson tradition are manifold. Edith Piaf herself is featured at one point. What’s foremost in many of the scenes is the tension created by Renoir’s passion for the love triangle and the erotic and romantic potential of performance and attraction. Maria Félix as the stunning Lola, toast of Paris and Nini’s rival, allegedly allowed the performative rivalry from the script to spill over into real life. Arnoul, in the absorbing documentary that comes as an extra, recounts the actual physical altercation that Félix engaged in with her on set.
The element of tantalisation is played out with the delayed satisfaction that the viewer must undergo before we experience the finalé. Every now and then we witness the rehearsal of the Cancan, but it’s a mere shadow of the real thing – Nini is instructed by a glamorous grande dame of the stage at Danglard’s instigation – and we almost get there. Renoir brilliantly shows how the exuberance of a polka was metamorphosed, through energetic improvisation and folk dance effects, into the Cancan.
Finally, the 20 minute finalé arrives. Nini’s choices are made for her, especially after an inspiring speech beautifully played by Gabin which argues for the life of pleasure and art over that of security and predictability. Then we are into the showcase musical number which is breathtaking in both its naturalism and choreographed artistry. The dance also acts as mediation towards harmony and completion; total satisfaction is achieved for all of the characters, only right and proper for a musical.
All in all this is a Lautrec / Renoir (père) / Manet-inspired extravaganza. It’s a charming and entertaining classic of French cinema that displays the influences of the American form on the director. Throughout the narrative the lives of the characters are set against a backdrop of the Moulin Rouge being built in the Montmartre marketplace. Renoir constructs his work of art in a parallel fashion, until finally it is a venue that can host Nini’s debut.
Danglard establishes himself backstage during the finalé and listens to the reception of his newly reinvented Cancan for his Moulin Rouge, seated on a plaster and velvet prop throne – the king of cabaret. Such nuanced images punctuate the action; and the extras, with interviews from cast and crew as well as Renoir’s surviving family, only add to the enjoyment.
This is the forerunner to other efforts, such as Walter Lang’s Can-can from 1960 with Shirley MacLain, which appears slightly insipid by contrast. And as for Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) – ouch! He wishes he was Renoir or Lang. I mistrust any film that has to include an exclamation mark in the title, anyway. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) which focussed on Lautrec’s career as observer and artist holds its own alongside Renoir’s masterpiece – if for no other reason than the song ‘It’s April Again’ – lipsynched by Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The anecdotes related by the actors and crew pay tribute to Renoir’s vision and his ability, with such works as La Règle de Jeu (1939) behind him, to direct them in a spontaneous and enlivening way. Truly: the Show must go on! Le spectacle avant tout!.