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Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir:
The Criterion Collection

The Golden Coach, French Cancan, Elena and Her Men

Criterion Home Video

Starring Anna Magnani, Jean Gabin, Ingrid Bergman

Written and directed by Jean Renoir

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Review by Mark Bourne                   

"I tried, if you like, to erase the borders between the representation of reality and reality itself. I tried to establish a kind of confusion between acting on a theatrical stage and acting in life."

— Jean Renoir

"When drilling for oil, choosing a government, or manufacturing explosives, we're not the best. But when it comes to the art of living, you can count on the French."

— from Elena and Her Men

Provence is one of the most spectacular regions of France. It's the France of the great Impressionist painters. Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and (of sidelong interest here) Auguste Renoir captured the luminescent quality of the light there and the brilliance of the colors. At least as vital as its sublime scenery, the region's lifestyle has acquired the sobriquet "l'art de vivre," or "the art of living."

Toward the end of his career, director Jean Renoir, son of Auguste, indulged his lifelong affection for the theater in three films that literalize the consummately French "art of living": 1952's robust The Golden Coach (Le Carosse d'Or), the light and lovely French Cancan ('55), and a pastel historical, Elena and Her Men (Elena et les Hommes) from '56. All three play around with one of the director's favorite themes: life as theater. They celebrate the preeminent value of art and artistes, as well as life's inherent pretenses, theatricality, and ephemeralness. They're Renoir's champagne-soaked response to Shakespeare's poor players who strut and fret their hour on life's stage before getting offed at the curtain line. Shakespeare tells us that life is phony and rife with lies and deception. Renoir says: Sure it is, so you might as well play along and enjoy it.

In the late 1930s, the gifted and innovative Renoir had crafted at least two classics that belong on anyone's All-Time Best list: the great humanist anti-war statement, The Grand Illusion, and The Rules of the Game, a social satire so biting that the merde hit the fan and Renoir's career in France was trashed. His name as one of the pantheon directors would be secure on those two titles alone. Because this reputation precedes him, we risk viewing his later "Stage & Spectacle" trio by squinting through a cineaste's loupe at the expense of enjoying them purely as light entertainments. In these warm, sensual, lusty, and above all light-hearted romantic comedies, Renoir appears to revel in snapping off more angsty ruminations at the root.

In 1941 Renoir left France to work in Hollywood, where he became an America citizen. But his Hollywood experience was not a happy one. It started badly when working for Fox meant that the dictatorial hand of Darryl F. Zanuck constrained his work. (Renoir eventually declared, "I would rather sell peanuts in Mexico than make films for Fox.") Going independent, he made his best American film (1945's The Southerner), and a film in India (The River), before returning to Europe to make The Golden Coach in Rome. That striking extravaganza was the first in a loose trilogy of airy soufflés staged with a non-naturalism that's far removed from Renoir's prewar work.

Bracketing these films together as a thematic threesome is an after-the-fact program arrangement that Renoir probably didn't have in mind as he made them. However, their binding similarities aren't difficult to spot even in a casual viewing. All three are period pieces about one woman pursued by three suitors. They are conspicuously stagebound for a director who helped take movies out of the studios and into the real world. In each film, this most artistically compassionate of directors evokes deeply felt emotionalism. Yet even amour, displayed here in abundance, is conjured without the gummy sentimentality of Renoir's American counterparts. Renoir loves his characters as people, not merely as furniture moved around for the sake of a plot.

In all three, Renoir's talent for composition and design — which he shared not only with his father but also his nephew Claude, who often served as his cinematographer — thrusts into an extra dimension through color. Each film is a Technicolor crème de framboise dabbed and splashed with bold crimsons, startling blues, and painterly yellows, greens, and blacks. The Golden Coach radiates the harlequin hues of the commedia dell'arte troupe who perform its play-within-a-play. It is "absolutely beautiful," said Francois Truffaut, "just as beauty itself is the subject of the film." In the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum describes this "pungent, gorgeous color masterpiece" as "essential viewing." The flowery Belle Époque French Cancan positively vibrates off the screen, like live-action water colors. Elena and Her Men places Ingrid Bergman in a milieu so visually different from Casablanca and her other black-and-white classics that it's like we're seeing her for the first time.

Renoir's fondness for working with world-class actors gets a fresh airing as well. Regarded by Renoir as "probably the greatest actress I have ever worked with," Anna Magnani is the daunting maypole at the center of The Golden Coach. French Cancan is all about Jean Gabin, who Renoir had worked with throughout his career. Renoir would be the first to tell you that Bergman was raison d'être enough for him to make Elena and Her Men.

Criterion's Stage & Spectacle boxed set

Criterion's Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir gathers Renoir's interpretations of "all the world's a stage" into a three-DVD collection that bears all the hallmarks we associate with Criterion. The films are well presented (Elena and Her Men was struck directly from the camera negative) and each is accompanied by extras that support the experience without fluff or filler. The Golden Coach is here in the English-language version that Renoir preferred. French Cancan and Elena and Her Men have received "new and improved" English subtitles. All are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The Golden Coach

Renoir described The Golden Coach as "not so much an Anglo-American film as a translation into English of a French film in the Italian style." A ragtag Italian commedia troupe arrives in colonial 18th century Peru. ("What do you think of the New World?" "It will be better when it is finished.") Expecting to perform in a lavish palace, instead they are gruffly greeted in a frontier backwater. But a stage is a stage even if it's a barnyard, and the show must indeed go on.

Anna Magnani plays Camilla, the troupe's earthy, impassioned leading lady. Three local men yearn for the voluptuous actress: the Spanish viceroy (Duncan Lamont) who plays up the airs and refinement of his position, an arrogant toreador (Riccardo Rioli) who stands as if he's posing for a portrait, and a Castilian soldier (Paul Campbell) who has taken up with the simpler and nobler natives. When the viceroy gives Camilla, a vulgar commoner, the colony's highest status symbol, a resplendent golden coach, his action shocks the aristocracy and sets off a chain of personal and governmental fireworks. The three suitors threaten blood and the viceroy's cabinet ministers threaten to toss him out of office. But the men ultimately cannot compete against the only true lover Camilla can know: her audience.

In The Golden Coach's graceful and meditative final scene, Renoir pulls back his own curtain to give Camilla's line, "Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?", a Pirandellian twist questioning the distinctions between Life and Theater, between who people really are and the roles they play. Not only is all the world a stage — it hardly matters which side of the proscenium we believe we're on.

Magnani is The Golden Coach's beating heart. Director William Dieterle described her as "the last of the great shameless emotionalists," and occasionally she emotes with a meaty gusto that can be grating. Perhaps that was a consequence of learning English for the role. Even so, her enormous dramatic talents for expressive characters, and the charisma that made her a beloved international star, are apparent. Other performances, especially Paul Campbell's, come off as slices of community-theater ham. Some of the blame for that may lie in Renoir's English-language screenplay, where it's often plain that he was not writing in his native language. Still, even when the pacing goes soft in the middle and never fully recovers, Renoir keeps the emotional spine straight. What we take away from The Golden Coach are its sumptuous look and the sense that a master director is opening up to us with some long-standing passions.

Criterion's DVD of The Golden Coach preserves the film with a very good print. For the most part, the source master is flawless. The rich colors are intact, though sometimes a bit muddy. One irksome problem arises with dense and inky blacks that are so over-saturated they blot out definition and detail. A second is more serious — the crucial final moments are restored from noticeably substandard footage. The sudden quality shift is such a shock that it punctures the flow and mood, and therefore the impact, of Renoir's delicate nesting-dolls structure.

Renoir made three versions of The Golden Coach, one in English, the others in French and Italian. Here the favored English-language version comes in DD 1.0 monaural audio that's strong and clear. He wrote the script while listening to Vivaldi, whose music from start to finish comes through well while fitting the screenplay and imagery to the last grace note.

Extras for The Golden Coach

French Cancan

Returning to France sixteen years after the tempestuous reception of Rules of the Game, Renoir aimed to win back his original audiences with French Cancan, "une comedie musicale."

Through the devices of a backstage romantic comedy, this rhapsodic fictionalized birth of the infamous Moulin Rouge nightclub evokes a bygone "Paree." It gavottes around the story of a sweet-faced laundry girl, Nini (Françoise Arnoul), who is discovered by the impresario Danglard (Jean Gabin). Danglard promises to make this wide-eyed innocent a star in his upscale revival of the bawdy cancan dance. Dedicating herself to his tutelage (and his bed) sets both of them at odds with the other men who love her — a moody baker boy (Franco Pastorino) and a wealthy foreign prince (Giani Esposito) — not to mention Danglard's previous mistress, a beautiful and headstrong diva (María Félix) so statuesque that we fear she could swallow Nini as an after-show mint. A comic brawl, intersecting love triangles, financial gamesmanship, and personal enmities put Gabin, the nascent club, and Nini's future beyond the washing baskets at peril.

French Cancan's final twenty minutes take place during the opening night at the Moulin Rouge. (Singer Edith Piaf appears in a small role.) The climactic cancan dance is one of the great film dance sequences, an explosion of color, texture, movement, and music. When Nini almost wrecks the big event by confronting Danglard about his taking yet another performer as his mistress, the old showman turns unrealistic Hollywood-like conventions on their head by scolding her, noting that his heart's only fealty is to his creations, just as hers should be only to the Theater. Coming to her senses, she embraces the liberating new world of her art as she jaunts out to the dance floor to become what she was meant to be, the toast of the Moulin Rouge.

Of the films in this set, French Cancan may be the most accessible for newcomers. Certainly it's the most joyous. All the actors are engaging and their romantic tangles charming. The stagy sets revive the fin de siecle Paris of our imagination, or of Auguste Renoir's paintings. Renoir's grand finale blends exhilarating showmanship and a carriageload of characters reconciled, their intrigues and follies stepping aside for "the show must go on." His final perfect little image — in the distance outside the vividly stylized Moulin Rouge, a drunken theater patron walks into frame, stops, faces the camera, and gives us a wobbly bow — feels like Renoir himself signing his name at the bottom.

Other big, colorful films have tried to bottle the bawdy fizz of the heralded nightclub. Renoir's French Cancan doesn't bother with the melodrama that freighted John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge. Nor, thankfully, is it the ice-cream headache of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 Moulin Rouge!

Criterion's spotless, bright, vibrant print of French Cancan is a dazzler. The DD 1.0 monaural audio is full and clean.

Extras for French Cancan

Elena and Her Men

Even though this one's the least successful of the three films, it remains an underrated romance-farce. For a story that's as substantial as a meringue, Renoir took his inspiration from a weighty source: an attempted right-wing coup in 1880s France. In his witty screenplay the historical elements are so liberally altered and moved out of context toward Renoir's goals that they're of little importance.

Ingrid Bergman plays a frivolous and mercurial Polish princess. Impoverished yet blithely cheerful, she is in Paris breaking bourgeois hearts at every turn. She falls for handsome Henri (Mel Ferrer), but leaves him to wed a rich shoe manufacturer. Her stakes rise again when a famous general (Jean Marais, Beauty and the Beast) doesn't just fall in love with her, he plummets. Ambitious and scheming politicos, knowing her desire to "inspire" men toward their dreams, use her as a ploy to convince the general to seize control of the republic. An engagement party scene, and a subplot involving the general's valet and the manufacturer's son chasing the bosomy maid, bring to mind the upstairs-downstairs escapades of Rules of the Game. Renoir skewers the pretenses and role-playing of politics, hawkish militarism, and sex. When the masks fall away, the sadder but wiser princess and Henri present to all France a kiss in a window that will literally save the social order.

There's not much of what anyone would mistake for suspense, but Elena and Her Men is a pleasant pastel-hued le screwball comedy. Renoir's return to social-political satire has such a light touch that when Francois Truffaut reviewed the film he noted that the director's preoccupations weren't really with politics or satire at all. Instead, "sex is the only focus of attention." Elena and Her Men is no Some Like It Hot, but there's something to be said for Renoir's universe in which governments can turn on the question of who gets to bed Ingrid Bergman. Bergman (a Swedish actress playing a Polish princess in French) is a delight, radiant and funny and surprising. Renoir's adroit directing serves a film seemingly made solely to capture her smiling during a difficult time in her career, and who are we to say that's not enough?

In the U.S., Elena and Her Men was released in a bowdlerized recut and poorly dubbed version called Paris Does Strange Things. The original on this disc should bury that one for good.

Criterion's DVD of Elena and Her Men provides a luminous print direct from the 35mm camera negative, and a typically pristine transfer. The DD 1.0 monaural audio, despite a slight background hiss, serves the film well.

Extras for Elena and Her Men

—Mark Bourne

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