I finished French Cancan last night. I say “finished” because I started it Tuesday night, streaming on Hulu Plus. About 25 minutes before the ending, when the big opening night stage show begins, either Hulu or my Internet connectionI started giving me trouble. It would freeze, start, freeze, start, and so on. Forty minutes later and 15 more minutes into the movie, I gave up.
This evening I tried again, starting where I left off, and rewinding to just before the point where the problem started. Everything went fine.
So I saw the movie in two parts. Not ideal, but I still got the gist of it.
If you primarily know Jean Renoir from Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, French Cancan can throw you for a loop. This is more like something coming out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit–especially The Band Wagon. It’s a backstage musical shot in three-strip Technicolor, funny, upbeat, and utterly entertaining. And, since it’s French, it’s far sexier than anything Hollywood would have made in 1954.
Renoir spins an origin myth, this one about the birth of the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. It has no more bearing the true story than Adam and Eve have with evolution. But then, one should never look to a myth for historical accuracy.
Renoir fixture Jean Gabin–looking grayer and pudgier than in Grand Illusion, stars as a theatrical producer of style, taste, ambition, and little money. He struggles to find backers while juggling mistresses. The main mistress is young, red-haired, and initially innocent (Françoise Arnoul). She must choose between the exciting world of dance and the young baker who loves her ardently and jealously.
Now here’s a difference between American and French musicals. She must choose between an honest young man who will always be loyal to her, and a philanderer and charlatan. Renoir has us rooting for the philanderer. The baker’s insistence on fidelity makes him an unlikeable jerk.
Also wonderful: The thin and extremely flexible Philippe Clay steals every scene he’s in as a performer who moves like no one else, sings comic songs, and twists his body like a pretzel.
This is Jean Renoir having fun.