music friday: black history month
geezer cinema/film fatales #76: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

french cancan (jean renoir, 1955)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 22 is called "Foreign Musicals Week".

"What's the point of watching a musical that's in a language you don't even understand?" you might ask. Well, as I'm not someone who's from an English-speaking country, I sometimes ask myself that too. But I still watch musicals in other languages, because music is universal! Hope you find a musical with a sound you like :-))

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical in a language different from one that you speak.

It's always nice to check out a Renoir movie I haven't seen ... he is on my shortlist of the greatest directors of all time. Yet this is only the seventh Renoir I have seen, and he has more than 40. I wouldn't mind having a Renoir festival, just gorge on his movies until I'd seen them all, but I also like to spread things around, watch things I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. That is, I am taking part in this Season Challenge because it exposes me to new films, not because it gives me an excuse to see French Cancan. Still, it's a happy coincidence that Renoir popped into my Challenge.

French Cancan is an interesting blend of artifice and the real. The entire film was shot on sets, and there is no effort to hide that fact. But the sets don't feel fake as much as they are extra-real. Everything is magnified, especially the colors. The film consciously calls on French impressionism ... Renoir's father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who frequently painted his family, including young Jean. The super-reality of the look of French Cancan reflects the way Renoir creates a world where art is paramount, where daily life can never reach the heights of art, and where the life of a performer is mostly realized on stage, often at the cost of an ordinary life.

The great Jean Gabin plays a cafe owner, Danglard, with an eye for new talent. During the course of the film, he drops one woman after another ... he cares about them all, but he cares more about performing, he brings out the performer in his partners, and moves on when another catches his eye. Near the end of the film, Danglard chastises his latest discovery, simultaneously revealing himself as a cad and making a case for the value of the performer:

Renoir loves all of his characters. When she is a laundry worker, Nini (Françoise Arnoul) is a lovely girl, although she is not an innocent. When she becomes a dancer, she blossoms. When she resists Danglard and the call of the stage, it is understandable, but when she finally gives herself over to the audience, she is fulfilled. But she isn't "better" than she was in the laundry, and the trade-off is clear: be like all the rest, or be a trouper. As usual, Renoir manages to imbue every step of Nini's life with respect. Not idealized respect ... French Cancan isn't a world where laundry workers are better than everyone else. But neither are troupers.

Everything culminates in the Cancan:

In the middle of all this, Renoir finds time for a cameo appearance by Edith Piaf as "Eugénie Buffet":

There are so many great performances here. Of special note is the smoldering Mexican star María Félix (at one point, she and Arnoul have a wonderful fight, described by Roger Ebert as "one of those movie scenes, much beloved in the taverns of Westerns, in which everybody in the room inexplicably joins in and starts pummeling each other.")

#473 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


Charlie Bertsch

Yesterday I realized I ripped this movie for Sky a few years back, though neither of us ended up watching it. Maybe I will now.

I can't remember how many of Alain's tales of his father and grandfather I have shared with you. But they were legion. For example, the point you make about Renoir loving all of his characters, at all stages of their lives, is one that Alain mentioned.

He connected that redemptive vision with the way he described his own education -- who knows how much of this was literally true -- as a kind of semi-homeschooling, because of his family's irregular schedule, in which his two instructors were the village priest and the local Communist Party boss.

Steven Rubio

I love to hear stories about Alain. I only had one encounter with him ... he told a dirty joke ... and, well, you know how star struck I get. But I don't know if I could have asked him about his father ... too much like "hi, not interested in you, but tell me about your dad".

The Criterion Channel has a bunch of Renoir right now. Like I said above, though, I can't watch them all at once, because there's so much else to watch, and you only live so long.

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