Recently, Americans marveled at how Bertrand Tavernier brought impressionist images to "life" in "A Sunday in the Country." Jean Renoir brought it off decades earlier with even more success and a bit less solemnity.
Jean Renoir was the son of the celebrated Impressionist Auguste Renoir, and grew up to be at least as significant an artist in film. Nowhere is his filial debt more evident than in "French Cancan" (1955), which has been rereleased with important improvements.
Renoir borrowed from his father's palette and from the those of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec to paint this moving picture of theatrical Paris in the 1880s, the world of Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge musical hall. The colors are vibrant, clear, but a bit unreal, as if tinted by the imagination.
Renoir's film, one of his last, was released in the United States in 1956 but the prints available here never did the film's strongest aspects much justice. The colors were faded, inaccurate, nothing like the newly restored version that opened Friday at the Key Theater for an indefinite run.
Franc,ois Truffaut wrote that the film marks "an important date in in the history of color films. Jean Renoir did not want to make merely a pictorial film and so 'French Cancan' is an anti-'Moulin Rouge' film. In the latter, John Huston mixed colors by the use of gelatine filters. In Renoir's film there are only pure colors."
Now we can see what Truffaut saw. The final scene, a cancan finale full of garters, silk and pantaloons, is a blaze of post-card color.
As a story, "French Cancan" fares less well; it is a minor work of a titan. Renoir directed one of the finest and funniest films ever made ("The Rules of the Game," 1939) and one of the most popular ("Grand Illusion," 1937). "French Cancan," "The Golden Coach" (1952) and "Ele'na et les Hommes" (1956) are a trilogy on the theme of life and the theater. Only "The Golden Coach" ranks with Renoir's strongest work.
The script is a French variation on an old Hollywood saw: cruel-but-kind impresario discovers none-too-innocent laundress. Danglard, played with hammish aplomb by Jean Gabin, puts pretty Nini (Franc,oise Arnoul) to bed and into the chorus. Nini also manages to string along the local baker boy. She seems nimble enough for all the activity.
Danglard's greatest aphrodisiac is Lady Theater. And through a series of financial and moral shenanigans, he opens a raffish music hall for millionaires in Montmartre, where once the noble proles of Paris danced.
Nini lives her life high and low, all the while kicking her gams to the heavens. She is shocked to discover that Danglard has been unfaithful. But he is a man who righteously declares fidelity to the "poo-bleek" and no one else. Chorines come and go but the proscenium is forever. On opening night, Nini at first refuses to join the dance finale but finally gives in, joining both the dance and, we are to suppose, the naughty universe of the Moulin Rouge.
In other words, the picture's the thing. "French Cancan" should not be missed, if only for the color, the debt of the son to the father. There is real pleasure in looking at "French Cancan," only a fraction of it academic.