Stage and Spectacle – Three Films by Jean Renoir

Stage and Spectacle - Three Films by Jean Renoir (The Golden Coach / French Cancan / Elena and Her Men) - Criterion Collection

These three Jean Renoir films were not conceived as a trilogy, but they fit beautifully together in this Criterion package: all luscious with theatrical color, wry in tone, and awestruck by beautiful women. When Renoir returned to Europe after his wartime exile in Hollywood, he first turned to The Golden Coach (1953), an international co-production shot in Rome. It contains all of Renoir’s love of the theatrical life, as a traveling troupe of actors arrives in a colonial town i
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3 thoughts on “Stage and Spectacle – Three Films by Jean Renoir”

  1. The three color films that mark Jean Renoir’s return to Europe might be surprising compared to his classics 30’s films like RULES OF THE GAME, LA BETE HUMAINE, TONI or GRAND ILLUSION, with which Renoir became prominent as a master of realism. For instance, always preferring to shoot on location rather than in studio environments (TONI was one of the first major sound motion picture to be entrely shot on location with direct sound recording; a revolution at the time).

    THE GOLDEN COACH, FRENCH CANCAN and ELENA AND HER MEN are deliberately artificial, stylized, and burlesque. Note for instance the framings in THE GOLDEN COACH, in which Claude Renoir’s camera is consciously and carefully placed to achieve symmetrical compositions. In comparison to the moving camera techniques of GRAND ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME that allowed him to capture the actions without missing the many crucial details in one, continuous long take, these three films (especially COACH and ELENA) may look very static. The acting style is also very much over the top.

    One of the supplements, the Jacques Rivette’s interview, in which Renoir repeatingly insists that “truth” or “reality” can be only achieved through artifice and artifacts of the artistic medium, is extremely revealing about Renoir’s changing his style, and that though the apparent style has changed, his philosophy about filmmaking is remarkably consistent.

    These three films are also created as comedies, though the contents are some of the most serious themes treated in cinema, and have a lot to do with cinema itself as a performing/representational art form. For each of the three films is profound analysis about performing in human life. FRENCH CANCAN is about the nature of performers, and the difficulties of that profession. THE GOLDEN COACH and ELENA AND HER MEN are, among other things, political farces, based on the extremely cynical idea that politics are nothing else but a matter of performance. Arguably, only Renoir could depict those themes as light-hearted comedies.

    Some notes should be made on the transfers of this new DVD edition. ELENA was shot with Eastmancolor film stock (one strip negative), and the transfer is created from the original negative. Excepts for optically-treated segments (dissolves and fade outs, fade ins) which show severe color fading, the DVD represents very much what the film should look like. And those color fadings are practically impossible to fix with today’s technology.

    THE GOLDEN COACH and FRENCH CANCAN were originally shot with 3-strips Technicolor cameras. This system requires 3 B/W negatives running simultaneously, each of them recording one primary color. So it is impossible to just scan the original negatives to get the most faithful images. The DVD transfers for these 2 films are created from interpositives. For FRENCH CANCAN, it seems that a vintage dye-transfer print was used, and though it shows certain damages caused by age, the DVD represents faithfully the texture and details such as the material quality of the clothings that can be only captured on a dye-transfer Technicolor print, as well as the rather pale, pastel-like color palette that Renoir and art director Max Douy intended to depict the period: the story takes place in the heights of impressionism paintings.

    For THE GOLDEN COACH, the print used for the transfer is probably from the restoration and re-release in the early 90’s (Martin Scorsese financed the American distribution; hence his introduction on the DVD). This restoration was important since before that, the film was virtually invisible, but nevertheless not a perfect one technically speaking. It does not have the richness of color of a dye-transfer Technicolor prints, particularly the reds and the blacks suffer a lot. Plus, certain shots, especially the extremely moving and revealing epilogue in which Renoir confesses through Camilla-Anna Magnani the sadness of working in performing arts, suffer a lot from the different shrinkage of each color-separation negatives. The colors are nearly dead, and they look out of focus. It’s a pity that unlike the American studio’s Technicolor classics with which a lot of financial and technical efforts are constantly made to put them back into shape, THE GOLDEN COACH, one of the greatest masterpieces of this color-format, is not yet properly restored.

    Criterion has already put GRAND ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME on market with beautiful DVD editions. Now, watching this new DVD sets, and especially watching the supplement BBC documentary about Renoir’s career after the 40’s, I must say that now they have to publish Renoir’s first color film THE RIVER, which is one of the less-known masterpiece of Renoir’s as well as a key film for the evolution of his style, on a DVD edition as accomplished as these.

  2. French Cancan, one of three Renoir films packaged by Criterion as Stage and Spectacle, is a marvelous movie. The story is simple but the execution is amazing. A Belle Epoque impresario, down on his financial luck, is going to open a new club, the Moulin Rouge, with a new dance, the French cancan. He encounters a working girl and makes her a dancer. She’ll become a star. There are several crises to overcome before that happens.

    The movie is Jean Renoir’s tribute to show business, and he puts it on the screen with color, verve, humor, and humanity. There are wonderful performances by all the actors. The leads are Jean Gabin as Henri Danglard, the impresario; Francoise Arnoul as Nini, the girl who’ll become a star; and Maria Felix as Lola de Castro, an overwhelmingly tempestuous beauty and Danglard’s lover at the start. Gabin exudes confidence, worldly humor and dedication to show business. He even dances a bit. Arnoul is first rate, too. It looks like she was doing her own dances, and as an actress think of a young Leslie Caron with brains and charm.

    The climax of the movie is the opening of the club, with Felix’s star dance, comic songs, a whistler, a Danglar-discovered singer, all moving toward the introduction of the French cancan. The crises happen and are resolved. Then the cancan explodes. Dancing girls come bursting out from the stage, the front of the theater, through posters, down ropes from the balcony. The house swirls with the black tie and tails of the swells and the garish colors of the dancers’ gowns. The cancan number lasts probably ten or fifteen minutes or so, all music and gaiety, all high kicks and splits. It’s amazing when row after row of the dancers, moving toward the camera through the audience, leap up, legs extended straight foward and backward, backs arched, then land on the dance floor in full splits. I didn’t know whether to shout or wince.

    The last scene of the movie is outside the club, shot from the cobblestone street looking at the entrance. It’s a medium shot and from the side street a happy, inebriated fellow in black tie and top hat staggers across, pauses to tip his hat at the camera, then staggers off. A completely charming ending.

    This really is a marvelous movie. Peter Bogdanovich has a good filmed interview. He usually puts me off with the ego, the ascot and the dyed hair. But he does know movies, and his insights into Renoir and this movie are good. There are several extras, and the DVD transfer is first rate.

    The Golden Coach: What a charming movie. I started smiling at the opening curtain and the good feeling lasted to the end. The dialogue is often amusingly worldly with an epigrammatic style. The look of the movie is so lush and theatrical. And Anna Magnani is a powerhouse as Camilla. One critic said that watching one after the other of The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena and Her Men, the three movies in the Criterion Renoir pack, would create a sensory overload. He’s right, I think. But taking each at a leisurely pace is proving very rewarding. The theater is life, Renoir says, and he’s proving it in these three movies.

  3. The DVD for “The Golden Coach” is for the most part fine, but the final minutes, which are crucial to the full impact of the film, are ruined by deplorable mastering. The scene appears to be out of focus and the colors are washed out to the point of barely being able make out what is happening. I believe Criterion made some kind of mastering error, because Martin Scorsese’s introduction to the film explicitly refers to the wonderful restored ending of the film. Criterion should withdraw the DVD and offer a replacement.

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