Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
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.
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.