Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, the best musical film of the 1950s and his first film in France since The Rules of the Game (1939), occupies the middle of his Technicolored studio-bound trilogy, in between The Golden Coach (1952) and Eléna et les hommes (1956). It is about romantic entanglements in 1880s Paris and the launch of the Moulin Rouge, with its revival of the boisterous, bawdy cancan.
Films whose frames suggest Impressionist paintings tend to be academic. Peter Bogdanovich makes this distinction: Renoir’s film suggests Impressionist painting, not specific paintings. Moreover, it coveys art and life’s interaction, the continuous translation of one into the other, their common ground of creativity and humanity. Nini, the laundress who comes to lead the cancan dancers, an advancement that requires sacrificing her personal life, exemplifies another kind of creativity: someone’s laboring on herself as though she were a work of art. We watch Nini re-create herself.
Jean Gabin is magnificent as Charles Zidler, the financially plagued impresario who founded the Moulin Rouge, who is here called Henri Danglard. We watch him in pursuit of his dream—a new way to please his soul and his beloved France: what Renoir wanted to do. Near the end, Danglard remains backstage on opening night as the cancan is performed, not watching, but listening and viscerally in sync, so that he can retain the dream.
Renoir immerses his camera in the dance so we feel we are a part of it—the dance of spirit on the floor, with its connection to all art, form releasing spirit, spontaneity, as in the birth of a child. The scene, more fragile than it seems, has passed, along with Renoir’s father, Pierre-Auguste, who epitomized it. His son’s final masterpiece gathers poignant affection for life’s fleeting moment.
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