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The Criterion Collection presents

French Cancan (1955)

Danglard: Do you know what I'll give them?
Casimir: No.
Danglard: A taste of the low life for millionaires. Adventure in comfort.- Jean Gabin, Philippe Clay

Stars: Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, María Félix
Other Stars: Jean-Roger Caussimon, Giani Esposito, Franco Pastorino, Philippe Clay
Director: Jean Renoir

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:43m:45s
Release Date: 2004-08-03
Genre: musical comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

French director Jean Renoir's films are woefully under-represented on DVD, with only a few of his best-known classics (and one of lesser interest) available. Thanks to Criterion, with the release of their boxed set Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir, the number of Renoir's works on the shiny discs has doubled, and French Cancan is the best of the three new releases.

The plot centers around impresario Danglard (Jean Gabin) and his attempts to revive the cancan. Inspired by a trip to Montmartre, Danglard realizes that by taking the naughty dance out of its working-class context and presenting it in respectable surroundings, he'll make a fortune off the upper-class Parisians who wouldn't be caught dead slumming. He sells his old theater, places a down payment on a Montmartre club and demolishes it to make way for the construction of the spectacular Moulin Rouge, but an accident puts the whole project in jeopardy.

And it's his former girfriend Lola (María Félix) who has the most to gain. Danglard has taken an interest in the young Nini (Françoise Arnoul), paying for her dance lessons and intending to feature her in his new show, replacing Lola as the prime attraction. Nini's also being pursued by her jealous boyfriend Paulo (Franco Pastorino) and the fabulously rich Prince Alexandre (Giani Esposito), but Lola holds all the cards—she's bought the deed to the Moulin Rouge, and tries to use it to separate Danglard and Nini.

As with his previous film, The Golden Coach, Renoir mixes mild barbs directed at both the lower classes and the aristocracy with the generosity of spirit that characterizes all his films. Paulo's clumsy attempts to keep his girlfriend and his animalistic behavior are contrasted with the suaveness of the wistful, charming Prince, but at the same time, one of Danglard's rich friends comments that appearances are all that can save the upper class. Beyond class distinctions, Renoir carefully separates the perspective of performers from those who aren't at the service of the public, telling Nini that he only cares about what he creates, and that she'd better accept the vicissitudes of a performer's life, or go back to the poverty she left behind. It's a powerful statement, almost frightening in its implications, and reveals a certain sadness on Renoir's part about the role of artists in society.

But that's only a tiny fraction of what's in the film, which abounds in music and dance. It is, after all, a "comédie musicale" as the opening titles state, and beyond the expected stage performances, characters often burst into song in typical musical fashion. Danglard discovers that his next-door neighbor has a beautiful voice, and she's soon part of his new act, performing the movie's title theme, La Complainte de la Butte (voiced by the wonderful Cora Vaucaire). And of course the final sequence, with the boisterous dancing of its colorfully-garbed cancan dancers, is a feast for both the eyes and the ears.

It's hard to imagine a better (almost) backstage musical than French Cancan, and indeed it's the only film of Renoir's so-called trilogy that was a commercial success (although not in the U.S., where the poorly-dubbed version sank like a stone). Renoir's framing of his actors and sets is exquisite, and Jean Gabin's performance is great, while the other actors are quite good, far superior to the weaker performers in The Golden Coach. While all three films in Criterion's boxed set are worth a look, this one is the gem of the set.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Just like the film itself, the image transfer is a significant improvement over The Golden Coach. Colors are vibrant, and considering the age of the film, skin tones are excellent. There's a lot of detail in the image, allowing one to fully appreciate the beauty of the Belle Epoque sets and costumes, although a few scenes are a bit softer. There are very minor color shifts, but all in all this is a great transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono sound isn't up to the high standards of the image. It's adequate, and the music and singing come through well, but at times it sounds a bit muffled.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Video introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
  2. Jean Renoir parle de son art: Part Two of Jacques Rivette's three-part interview with Renoir
  3. Video interview with set designer Max Douy
  4. Production stills
  5. Eight-page printed insert
Extras Review: Film director Peter Bogdanovich's 10m:57s introduction to the film is punctuated with full-frame production stills and clips from the film, but curiously, his video segments are cropped to widescreen. He places the film in the context of Renoir's return to France after World War II, attempting to ingratiate himself with the public after the disaster of his previous film, comments on the movie's themes, and discusses how the ending might have been different if French Cancan had been an American film. It's brief, but this is an informative intro, packed with useful information.

Set designer Max Bouy's 6m:39s interview is in subtitled French. He discusses the care that was taken in the use of color in the film, the disproportionate part of the budget that was needed to construct the many sets, and Renoir's feelings on returning to France. His remarks are illustrated with posters, clips from the film, and production stills, and like Bogdanovich's introduction, the interview clips look great.

The second part of Jacques Rivettes Jean Renoir parle de son art interview with Renoir clocks in at 15m:35s. Unsurprisingly, it's a continuation of the first part, but Renoir clarifies his position as regards to technical advances in film. Rivette assumes that sound, color and widescreen all lead toward Renoir's much-cherished realism, but Renoir contrasts the beauty of art made by primitive means with the boredom that's the result of technical perfection. At the same time, he recognizes the need to "go with the flow," but reserves the right to find the best current.

A gallery of 12 production stills is included, and in the printed notes, Andrew Sarris briefly discusses the success of the film, the importance of its star, and its themes and style.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

Jean Renoir traces the somewhat fictionalized creation of Paris' Moulin Rouge club in a musical comedy that's full of song, dance, and visual beauty. The transfer is great, and Criterion has rounded up some worthwhile extras. Recommended.

Robert Edwards 2004-08-01