Sunday, December 28, 2014

French Cancan at 60

In a city replete with tourist attractions, Paris’s Moulin Rouge remains a popular destination. Its surreal ambiance aided by a historic list of famous - and infamous - patrons and performers, the building’s garish facade and spinning neon windmill form a monument to the distinctly French concept of Joie de Vivre. Amid the stately, elegant beauty of Paris, the Moulin Rouge evokes a tarted up strumpet, beckoning innocent passersby to sample the decadent splendors within.

In 1954, director Jean Renoir crafted French Cancan, a loving Technicolor tribute to this notorious nightclub. In this fictionalized account, we follow the twisting path of a down-on-his-luck impresario named Danglard (Jean Gabin) and his dream of creating a truly democratic dancehall; a place where rich and poor, banker and baker, could mingle and enjoy a night of bawdy entertainment. Along the way, the debonair Danglard recruits wary investors and pretty girls previously condemned to a life of poverty, and slowly his scheme begins to take shape.

60 years later, French Cancan retains a multiplicity of charm despite a few rough edges. Due to the light-hungry demands of Technicolor, the sets look flat, harsh and theatrical, evoking little of the moody mystery found in the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec or Renoir’s father, painter Pierre Auguste. But it’s clear Jean inherited his old man’s eye for composition, and the film features several crowd scenes, complete with dodgy background lurkers, that echo the elder Renoir’s most famous works. The costumes are rich and sumptuous, and viewers will develop an appreciation for the Olympic athleticism required to be a top flight Cancan dancer. 

The film also features a brief appearance by the legendary Edith Piaf, whose hard life makes her look much older than her 39 years at the time of filming. And bear in mind we are witnessing a highly sanitized version of history; the film avoids any mention of the rampant alcoholism and syphilis outbreaks that plagued these establishments in the early 20th century. Despite these flaws, French Cancan is a bouyant, at times spectacular, entertainment that adds a glossy gleam to the saga of Paris‘s most celebrated cabaret.

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