“Man is a creature of habits,” said Jean Renoir, “and the job of the artist is to break these habits,” adding in another interview, “vive Sartre, and vive the idea that existence comes before essence!” Its reviewers disdained French Cancan for Renoir’s move from “neorealism”—location shooting, improv acting, and a fluid, democratic camera searching out the subject of the scene—to “artificiality”—painted sets, perfunctory plot points woven in and out of dialogue like musical refrains, and a stable camera defining scenes to the contours of the screen—as though the betrayal of realism weren’t the very topic of the film. Later, Rossellini and Oliveira would take similar steps from documentary “neorealism” to demonstrative “artifice,” “reality” to “art,” as if also signaling that all along their films had been less about basking in poverty than documenting the gestures, expressions, movements of people as they enact their daily habits and sometimes break free of them: a portraiture of how people live.
Not think, but live. Renoir the “humanist” and psychological sympathist deciphering everyone’s “reasons” seems a bourgeois curtailing of Renoir the filmmaker of rapists, murderers, conmen, thieves, drunkards, braggarts, knaves, the Renoir whose foot-deep psychological insights amount to boozing commedia dell’arte innocents and sinners, brutes and civil servants, each with a neatly articulated, dangling goal—love, money, fame, sex, party, dinner, sex—intercepting the others’; goals that they will attain at all costs through the habits of their race. Renoir’s own habits, means, changed, necessarily, but if there’s a difference in point between the earlier films and later it’s that in the early films the social habits break down (if at all) in democratic anarchy of animals uncaged while in the later films these eruptions are ordered and planned; the break-down itself becomes a demonstration of habit and style. The staid camera and tableau backdrops making a stage of every space not only pose and poise the actors into preconceived routine, as critics complained, but are the imaginal extensions of characters, in classic hierarchies of directors and kings, who conscientiously recreate their world.
But any distinctions between liberty and hierarchy are questioned and dissolved in Renoir’s simple ode to motion: epochs, love affairs, aging ballerinas, and kicking thighs each giving way to the next in the order of a constant revolution. If this reads as a victory of style over substance, existence over essence, the story of French Cancan, a man with three lovers, each with three lovers (leading not to choices of right and wrong characters but infinite possibilities of liaisons), who stages a cancan in the 1880s Moulin Rouge, is, as conceived, a basic demonstration of imagination made material, substance manifest entirely as style. “Le style c’est l’homme,” is Raymond Durgnat’s suggestion in his piece on the film.
French Cancan’s structure—two types of men, sardonic Gods (the crew) who realize their lives are performed, and exploited earnest humans (the cast) who don’t, the former playing with the latter as a model army—derives from Shakespeare, Mozart, and Marx, and gets adapted in Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, in Rivette and in Desplechin (whose characters suspiciously are all Gods). Innumerable plot points detailing the shifting alliances of the characters are effectuated cursorily in near opera recitatif, stand-ins for the living experience, as scenes bounce between characters betraying each other and apologizing in single lines to keep the storyline moving as a stand-in for actual plot. Supporting characters bemoan their fate as supporting characters, stuck as laundry girls or steady boyfriends to women who gallivant with princes. “What would a picture be if it were not a sign?” said Picasso. “A tableau vivant? Ah, of course, if one were an artist! But when one is only Cezanne or wretched Van Gogh, or Goya, then one paints signs.” These perfunctory signifiers of a quotidian realism Renoir has effectively abandoned serve mostly to raise the forgotten world of the cancan stage in relief as supposed fairy tale romance—that the cancan, the characters’ El Dorado, was in history a slight, passing trend seems precisely the point. The realism’s stagy and the art’s all too real.
References to tilting at windmills run through French Cancan, but Renoir’s own style is less a nostalgic, Dickens-Desplechin “dwelling on the romantic side of familiar things” than a hammy dwelling on the familiar side of romantic things. The Moulin Rouge is effectively a family circus of old friends, the basic plot trajectory is about raising capital to meet the budget, and the emphasis undulates between group scenes of characters hanging out in the background, practicing their steps or watering plants, and intimate dialogues between characters pondering how they’ll sacrifice material realities for artistic vanities and eternal fame—while Renoir’s camera emphasizes their material present-ness (the very point of the dance they’ll supposedly sacrifice their lives to), the stroking of hair and exchanging of glances of two people simply existing in a perfectly framed space epoch, whose dreams of eternity are historical contingencies.
The final dance is built from these thematic paradoxes—a Paterian seizing of time in a purely transient mode; a movement expressed by an unmoving camera; a renewal of a historic dance only as a contemporary (but now historical) trend; a democracy of stars and audience conjoined in dance as, in dress, they follow the historical orders and hierarchies they’ll return to, and in movement, the formations of the dance itself; a release from one routine into another; a collapse of roles in renewed role-play (as in Rules of the Game)—and is built from a collapsing series of dialectical montage between shot-reverse-shots of the room, wide-angles and close-ups, diagonal and head-on perspectives. Background becomes foreground no longer in camera movement (as in earlier Renoir) but in the 180-degree cutting and in the still framing emphasizing the characters’ own moves in dynamic, stage—like openings into deep space as the dancers rush forward and back, dissolving spatial distinctions.
To build to the moment Renoir starts with establishing shots of the neat choreography below and slowly cuts into the action until the camera, no longer dictating a clear perception of the scene, is overtaken by whirls of color, in a move from classicism to the provisional frame of Impressionism’s “insistence on catching the present,” to finally an open stage of free expression as the dancers rush the camera: a pure movie. Meanwhile, Renoir cuts back and forth between groups that will conjoin: the dancers and the audience, the dancers and Danglard, the director, now superfluous to his own creation at the culmination of his career and sitting behind the stage on a throne lightly swinging his leg as he hears the music: content as he’s always been to just imagine the scene, as if it’s the conception and even rehearsals—that lived experience until now offered only in symbols and stand-ins—that have mattered more than the final show.
Effectively he’s like Arthur, having structured a democracy, now watching his private world pass him by as history. But these dialectics between what’s present and past, real and staged, cease to matter in the basic emotion of watching the thing, dance and movie, revived for audiences’ senses as a living experience, ushers bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in the background and corner of the frame, and soon Danglard joins the dance. French Cancan is a movie played musically, a series of contending refrains that expand, deepen, and finally harmonize—the final dance plays as a miniature of the entire film in the flurry of a montage that brings the characters into the unity of one time and one place, whether it’s the Moulin Rouge of the 1880s or Renoir’s studio of the 1950s.
Any profundities about art are simply that whatever its dubious worth as a lozenge for the exigencies of material life doing the dishes and the laundry—Renoir’s characters (and critics) balance the scale between life and art, but Renoir’s films past the 20s never show much of a difference—its real value is as a means of simply sounding one’s existence in a specific place and a specific moment in a vibrancy of color and movement. The last shot shows a drunkard stumbling—and bowing—far off and alone outside the Moulin Rouge’s windmill façade: no less than Danglard, a star only of his own private cabaret and, for this last moment, Renoir’s. This democratic generosity, this supposed “humanism”—the idea that everyone’s equally vain, drunk, base, and a creature of appetites to understand each other as such, to slough off the shackles of habit and exist simply as they are beyond essence or necktie—finally gets its Rosetta stone. There’s no movie I go back to as much, just for the pure pleasure of watching it.