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It is Universally Agreed that Jean Renoir is one of the Greatest Directors

It is universally agreed that Jean Renoir was one of the greatest of all directors, and he was also one of the warmest and most entertaining. “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game” are routinely included on lists of the greatest films, and deserve to be. But although “Rules” contains scenes of delightful humor, neither suggest the Renoir who made “Boulu Saved from Drowning” (1932), or “French Cancan” (1954), “French Cancan” a delicious musical comedy that deserves comparison with the golden age Hollywood musicals of the same period.

In them one can sense the cherub that his father, Auguste Renoir, painted more than once. That same twinkle is captured in the photographs taken later in his life. Some people are essentially happy, and it shows in their faces. Renoir lived to be 84, his last years at home in Beverly Hills, where he was interviewed by a parade of worshipful young critics. He won an honorary Academy Award in 1975. He had moved to America after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Although most of his great films were made in the 1930s, in the 1950s he returned to France to make a remarkable trilogy which were all in Technicolor and all musical comedies: “The Golden Coach” (1955), named by Andrew Sarris as the greatest film ever made; “French Cancan,” and “Elena and Her Men” (1956).

“French Cancan” uses one of the most familiar of musical formulas, loosely summarized as, “Hey, gang! Let’s rent the old barn and put on a show!” In this case he was inspired by the origins of the Moulin Rouge, the Montmartre cabaret theater which to this day still has success with the kinds of shows it opened with. It is a backstage story centering in the life of the (fictional) impresario Henri Danglard, a womanizer whose career was a series of narrow escapes from bankruptcy.

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For his Danglard, Renoir cast Jean Gabin, the greatest of all French leading men, whose genius, like that of so many stars, involved never seeming to try very hard, and simply reflecting his own inner nature. It was their fourth film together, and after the weighty characters Gavin played in “The Lower Depths” (1936), “Grand Illusion” (1937) and “Le Bête Humaine” (1938), a complete change of tone. Danglard is the always insolvent owner of the Chinese Screen, which headlines the infamous courtesan La Belle Abbesse (Maria Felix) as a sultry belly dancer, known to all as Lola, his mistress.

One night he goes out slumming with Lola and some friends, and in a Montmartre dive sees the patrons doing a jolly can-can. This scene, early in the film, has a freshness that delights; it feels almost plausible, not staged, although it surely is. And it establishes two key characters, the pretty bakery girl Nini (Françoise Arnoul) and her possessive lover Paolo (Franco Pastorino). When Lola haughtily declines to dance, Danglard asks Nini to be his partner, inflaming the jealousy of both Lola and Paolo and giving him an inspiration. The Chinese Screen is failing, and falling into the hands of his creditors. He will open a new theater, and revive the can-can, an old-fashioned dance from the 1870s, renaming the “French Cancan” as a strategy to make it sound more exotic–not to the French, but, as we see on opening night, to American tourists and Russian sailors.

Danglard is a man who faces emergencies with serenity. His face never betrays concern. He occupies a series of unpaid hotel suites, always alert to find a financial backer, and not above offering Lola herself as the prize to one rich prospect. He makes no pretense no faithfulness, to her or anyone else, and makes it clear that his only loyalty is to the stage. The three 1950s musical comedies are often described as Renoir’s “art trilogy,” and this one is most single-mindedly dedicated to the bond between performer and audience.

“French Cancan” was entirely shot on sound stages, including one big set of a Montmartre street scene, with stone steps leading up to a little square above where we find the bakery that employs Nina. (This square providentially opens onto a charming little grassy area for a romantic scene, although such a space is unimaginable in such a crowded part of the city.) A cafe on the street provides the setting for a chummy older couple who observe and comment on all the activity, and are covered with dust when Danglard’s workmen detonate explosives to bring down the White Queen, a failing club which is destined to provide the land for the Moulin Rouge.