Monday, August 02, 2004

Only the French Can

I rented the Criterion DVD of 1955's French Cancan, written and directed by Jean Renoir. It only seems to be available for purchase in a set of three films Renoir made in the '50s, all in gorgeous color and all kind of fluffy. (Though if you're a film critic, when a great but aging director makes light and fluffy movies, you're supposed to call them "humanistic" instead of "fluffy." Just as when a great but aging director makes a boring movie, it's "autumnal.") French Cancan, Renoir's first French movie since the '30s, is a semi-musical, with several dance sequences, including a great climactic can-can scene, and cameo appearances by performers like Edith Piaf. It's basically a straightforward backstage story -- an impresario takes an unworldly young laundry girl, makes her into a star dancer, and teaches her that when you're in show business, the show takes precedence over everything, even love. It's an entertaining movie that fortunately doesn't make the mistake of trying to ape the French Impressionist paintings of the period; there's a general suggestion of the look of those paintings, but Renoir, an informal, improvisatory director who tended to plunk the camera down and let the actors do their thing (this is why he was such a favorite of the New Wave critics and directors, who were devoted to seat-of-your-pants moviemaking as an aesthetic ideal), doesn't try to arrange everyone and everything into looking like they stepped out of a picture by someone whose name ends in "et."

The movie gets some extra kick from being, apparently, an allegory about moviemaking; Jean Gabin, the star, basically seems to be playing Renoir (a big, broadly-gesticulating guy who's both lovable and subtly controlling, as a movie director needs to be), and various aspects of the story seem to be played for their similarity to the process of movie production: the struggles with producers, the casting couch, the girl who rises to stardom and dumps her old acquaintances along the way. When Gabin says that show business people are always at the mercy of the people who put up the money, the joke is that while he's talking about 19th-century show business, he could just as easily be talking about 20th-century show business; nothing has changed. In a movie made a couple of years earlier, The Bad and the Beautiful, which was actually about moviemaking, producer Kirk Douglas plucks Lana Turner from obscurity and exploits her crush on him so he can turn her into a movie star; in French Cancan, Jean Gabin does something very similar while turning Francoise Arnoul into a star dancer. Of course, Bad and the Beautiful isn't a comedy, and French Cancan is; you could argue that if it's an allegory about moviemaking, it actually makes the movie industry look pretty good -- since it's saying, in effect, that the hucksterism of the movie industry isn't unique to that industry; it's just part of showbiz, and it's been going on forever.

No comments: