Jean Renoir’s magnificently camp French Cancan, with its slapstick rhythm, numerous frenzied love triangles and over embellished dance routines is a perfectly elaborate tribute to the origins of the notorious Moulin Rouge.
Henri Danglard is the fashionably suave but bankrupt owner of Cafe Le Paravent Chinois in Paris. Despite the rambunctious crowds this burlesque club attracts through its provocative dancers and entertainers, his business is crumbling under the weight of his own frivolous demeanour and absurd pomposity. Even Lola, Danglard’s mistress, is unable to salvage the club from this financial slump despite her eye-catching belly dancing, and, inevitably, the cafe is closed, condemning Danglard to the cold unforgiving streets of Paris.
He’s left with little choice but to reassess his options and find another lucrative project to restore his wealth and fame, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”
Then one fateful day, whilst scouring the bars and clubs on the wrong side of the Parisian tracks, he discovers a bar in the run down part of town where the Cancan (even then regarded as outdated and old fashioned) is still danced. Witnessing the exuberant faces of the bar’s patrons, he soon realises he’s discovered his next lucrative show.
Amongst the hordes of dancers and drunks, Danglard spots Nini, a young laundress and natural dancer who gleams through this destitute rabble like a diamond in the rough. With a new routine and vibrant face to launch this new production, he sets about creating a new, more popular establishment – The Moulin Rouge.
What Danglard cannot foresee are the explosive romances fuelled by jealousy and greed that would threaten his new venture. Yet, whilst love may conquer all, in show business there’s little room for romantic engagements, with adoration and devotion all too often sacrificed in favour of applause…
Like his father, the famed impressionist Pierre Renoir, Jean Renoir has created an image of Paris that positively radiates with a plethora of vivid colours. Gloriously exploding from the screen, Renoir’s sumptuously framed love letter to Paris successfully creates a contagious atmosphere of electrifying excitement which is impressively sustained throughout, thanks mostly to a well crafted script, which effectively amalgamates delightful lyrical whimsy with an immersive and realistic romantic subplot.
The film’s carefully choreographed dance scenes play out with an intoxicating energy of intensity and feverish joy which add a sense of character to the proceedings. Not unlike Jacque Demy’s fantastic Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (filmed twelve years later), the movements of Renoir’s carefully chosen dancers are hypnotic, with each radiating an noticeable spirit of joviality and impishness. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s overly stylised Moulin Rouge, French Cancan captures the raw energy on the stage in a more realistic way. This approach ultimately results in a more natural and, in turn, immersive viewing experience, which will ignite your soul with an invigorating sense of elation.
The set designs, whilst obviously shot in a studio, manage to recreate a vibrant Parisian atmosphere only bettered by the adorably twee costume that are as fantastically flamboyant as the stars who wear them. Once combined with the pleasingly impassioned soundtrack, the film’s choreographed dance scenes explode with a frenzied mix of colour and sensuality. A brief but poignant cameo by Edith Piaf gives further reason, if reason be needed, to watch this resplendent musical drama.
Behind this vigorous stage show, there appears to be a deeper side to French Cancan, hidden behind its facade of glitz and glam. Renoir’s harmonious ode to Paris retains some of the director’s trademark side swipes at the class system. The characters are all too rigidly archetypal examples of their comparative class. There is the suave prince and the pompous aristocrats who dress in splendid gowns and suits and care little for anything other than money and prowess. In stark opposition, we also have the stereotypical working class stiffs; boorish uncouth philistines who toil away at meaningless jobs, constantly searching for a way out. No-one escapes this very black-and-white treatment, resulting in there being no established middle ground. Renoir’s efforts to inject subtle satirical themes into his film, in an attempt to bring down these archaic barriers, unfortunately results in a cast of relatively two dimensional characters.
French Cancan is a finely tuned musical with an unadulterated focus on the pomp and tomfoolery of stage entertainment, with a rich romantic vein gently anchoring it from disappearing into a midst of contrived, meaningless gaiety. With the spotlight firmly set on the harsh but exciting world of theatre and dance, the film does sometimes fail to elaborate on the motivation of our entertainers and their lives behind the curtain, or emotions under their make-up. However, this lack of dimension fails to diminish the fact that French Cancan is a downright explosion of joie de vivre, with a contagious zest for life that creates a near perfect sensual delight.