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justin hall
25 may, 1998
film: form and signification
t. kaori kitao

french cancan
boy, can they ever.

Jean Renoir's French Cancan is the essence of cancan itself - brassy, theatrical, groin oriented, and heavily dependent on costume. characters are caricatures, playing themselves playing actors and impresarios in a movie; all is theatre, and all is charged - larger than life.

French Cancan announces all this by opening with belly dancing. Lola, an attractive black haired beauty, shimmies her hips in skimpy bejeweled mideastern garb and tosses off witty phrases in French to an adoring upper crust audience. on stage is bare skin and brilliant saturated colour: her light blue shawl and the scenic backdrop; while the audience is a sea of sharp looking tuxes and top hats with a few dresses between. immediately we see that in this film, life and sex and colour and movement revolve around the stage. the audience of aristocrats is appreciative, and attractive in their own right, but restrained, in their blackness and seated spectatorship.

the first character we meet in dialog is the male lead, Danglard, also attired in a black suit, but punctuated by a yellow brocade(?) vest. the graceful combination here of formal and bright makes him creatively elegant, as one lower class chap later on in the film remarks "he's either a duke or an artist" (referring there to his dancing). by the film's end, he's been established as a bit of both - graceful theatre royalty more innovative than dependable.

in French Cancan, true to cliché, the clothes make the man. this is emphasized by the first location shift of the film, from the aforedescribed scene at the Chinese Screen, where Lola is bellydancing, to the White Queen, where more common folk share a dance floor together. how do we know they are lower class? besides the opening dialog about the lack of stuffed shirt attendance by the bar owner, the male patrons are wearing simple long sleeved, plain shirts with dark vests, and the women sport no girdles and few ruffles. both are far freer to move about, and the scene has a joyous momentum to it, as people are free from the restraint dictated by the upper classes. later, when a posse of well dressed aristocrats enter "slumming," the contrast in costume is immediately apparent, as their top hats stand out above the crowd, and the girdled and frill-laden ladies mingle amongst the working class folk.

while the movie employs these conventions of class and costume, the action revolves around crossovers; Danglard visits the White Queen, meets Nini, an excellent young dancer (and launderette in her off hours, washing the costumes of the wealthy) and Danglard brings Nini into the high speed high class world of dance theatre with him. it is this union of class and gender, however temporary or flawed, that is the basis of cancan - taking a fun dance that the unselfconscious lower classes enjoy together and making giant spectacle of it for the paying wealthy. the movie has much fun with a final cancan spectacular, and the message therein is simply "pleasure here is larger than life." there is not a heavy handed social text underneath this movie - Renoir clearly enjoys the culture and people he portrays. perhaps we might say that he argues in favour of class and role mixing, but the characters are so fixed within their caricatures (articulately fixed to be sure, but fixed all the same) that we do not leave this movie reflecting on social structure. it is spectacle. and fun! fun that many people, from many walks of life are drawn into.

accordingly, characters are not meant to be subtle here. French Cancan is a pageant - actions writ large transport us to a world more charged than our own. accordingly, much of the characterization is simultaneously sophisticated and simple. there is a prince, Alexandre, rather smitten with a young dancer, the female protagonist, Nini. He is consistently attired in superbly dressy but still quiet clothes; she changes outfits throughout to suit her rising social position. at one point he asks her to sit with him, "like i was a boy next door" and so we see them, her sitting on the grassy hill as he requested, wearing a peach blossom/rose coloured dress, all aflush with young womanhood, roses decorating her hat, and she's even holding a bouquet of roses, a gift from the young prince. the pairing is essential, young womanhood and roses, but the execution is not just easy. there is an elegance in the moment, as it fits into the broad sweep of the film and as these characters gracefully romp about in character types that still resonate today.

besides moments like the roses on the hill that symbolize a character stuck in time, costumes in the movie over time match the evolving social position of the given character. when Danglard loses his production and his hotel and his valet, we see him sitting in the bare dance studio, in his pajamas and bathrobe, still elegant, but understated, casual. (i do not wear pajamas myself, but seeing him so attired was tempting). when next we see him, he is wearing a most sharp looking dark suit with cuffs just so, framed on his left shoulder by a wonderful olive jacket. he is leaning against the piano singing wistfully: he is now back doing what he loves, what we love because he does it so well. the clothes match the man - he looks as sharp as he must feel being back in charge of the Moulin Rouge.

to write about costume is almost too easy, when considering cinematography in this film. costumes are so present. the characters are defined by them. the leads go through a dizzying array of dashing compositions to match their state of mind or place in the production. but as the film is "French Cancan" this is fitting - cancan is a dance defined by the ruffles, the skirts, the stockings. without costumage cancan is simply bawdy gymnastics. but with costume it is theatre! a glimpse of something truly exciting between the legs and arms of a trained dance professional!

beneath the costumes there remains the characters, though they are closely linked. they share traits. the costumes perform, and the characters perform. this blurred mix of performer and attire is mirrored by Renoir's melding of character and player, described here by Sesonske:

"From Nana on, Renoir begins to include in his films not only characters living their lives, but also performers, characters who within their lives give performances that are deliberately devised, rehearsed and presented to an audience. He explores the relation between life and performance, the way in which one's life enters in to the performance or the way in which the acts that shape or express one's life tend to become performances."
(Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir, the French films, 1924-1939, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1980, page 35)

mixing performance and life, directing actors to play characters practicing for performance, lends French Cancan an exciting vitality. that kind of synergistic energy, echoed in the rich ties between character and costume i've described herein, is matched in this sequence analyzed; the melee that erupts when former favourites of Danglard meet in the Moulin Rouge under construction:

all walks of society are represented, pickpockets, a minister in the government, old gents, society folk, a bitter baker. the actors act in a stage set under construction. the liveliness of the scene, as in much of the movie, stems from people crossing over from their particular place in society, or their gender, to be amidst the chaos the happens when low and high or male and female meet.

the scene starts as Lola in white stands with a group of distinguished men, all in black. they are sharp, she too is well dressed, the contrast highlights her gender and costumage - her plumage, literally, her headgear and her attitude are high. as they are saluting and flirting with each other, a anthem starts, and a sky gazing woman wonders in front, only to be grabbed by the serpentine clerk - a moment of lightness.

this lighthearted interruption is echoed as we cut to the next scene, a tighter shot framing four folks: a pickpocket pair and their girlfriends. the women are carrying on and the men looking over-reverent attract their attention to the anthem by tapping them with the cane.

the next shot places everyone in context - a far away shot of the set under construction and all parties within. in the foreground, the orchestra and conductor, bravely conducting away, while in the upper left the black clad ministers and in the upper right the colourful cancan dancers. from left to right walks the prince, Alexandre, from the ministers to the dancers. here is the film's geometry - action when people cross class boundaries. the prince at the time is the only motion onscreen, besides the movements of the orchestra. his walk is visually disruptive, and verbally unexplained (on my tv, the character was indistinguishable).

the character is revealed as we see for the first time the shot of the cancan girls standing at attention. we see their full bodies, they are lined up in front of us in their full colourful glory. the prince, all in black but for a red rose in his lapel, enters from the left, corresponding to his motion from the last shot, and he crosses between ladies to Nini in the front, taking her hand and kissing her.

now we return to a shot of the ministers in black, with Lola leaving right. the cutting back and forth is reminiscent of the film overall - scenes of relative wealth and poverty, with all characters appearing in each, the life stemming from the motion between.

then back with the cancan dancers at a different angle, tighter - Lola appears from left quickly (an escalation of the prince's graceful saunter) and questions Nini. they have a rushed, hushed conversation as the music plays.

a shot, tighter still, of the ministers; Danglard dispatches his serpentine clerk to intercede between Lola and Nina.

and a still tighter shot of the dancers, now with the teacher on the left, Lola and then Nini - so tight that barely the waists of only these three characters show up. the clerk enters, squeezing himself in between Lola and Nini, between whom tension is palpably building. the music ends and Lola leans over the clerk and attacks Nini.

in these last few shots, the pacing increases, and the back and forth motion is both dizzying and hypnotic. as we swing from left to right, the camera zooms in and we are drawn - zoom zoom zoom! - into the increasing frenzy, until finally Lola attacks Nini and the scene nearly erupts into a melee.

before things may truly erupt, the minister must leave. the camera cuts from the fledgling fight to the men in black, and pulls back just past waist level; we follow the minister left as he leaves with his retinue, tipping his top hat to a man below as he ascends a plank over a ditch. this is the only time that the camera follows a character in this sequence; it nicely matches the main characters' attentiveness to the presence of the minister.

having taken a breath to exit the man of distinction from the set, the camera returns to the action with the dancers, pulled back a little from our last visit; a medium shot exposes more characters. Lola pushes Nini, and general chaos ensues. as the other characters are quickly drawn into the shoving, several ladies turn their backs to us or tip their heads, and their hats become visible as circles of colour punctuated by flowers; a nice effect, bobbing amidst the swaying dresses.

briefly we return to the men and Danglard leaves right for the dance fight.

the shoving has continued into escalation as Danglard arrives, between Lola and Nini. the camera cuts, almost seamlessly, into a waist high closeup of Danglard and Lola in the chaos, as he addresses her to stop her attack on the younger dancer. we cut out to see their full bodies as the others continue their pushing, and Danglard grasps Lola to restrain her from attacking Nini. Lola, ever resourceful, kicks Nini anyways and immediately the full crowd of black clad men arrive from left and sweep to encircle the main characters; they become embroiled in the fray. Walter, the benefactor, and the dumb soldier dude carry Lola off to the left.

so as we are swept along by the chaos, we see from the perspective of the participants. there is some balance, as characters rush about; there is a left and right, and the trajectories are not difficult to follow. the herd mentality of the players is apparent as well; a few well-watched characters rush to one location and others are sure to follow.

the social machinations of theatre people in the theatre, being petty and grand all in one flawed production, this is French Cancan. there is something wonderful in the liveliness of it, as there is something delightful in seeing cancan, a dance of underpants and twirling legs, elevated to theatre for high society. the mix of high and low culture was bound to be a success, as both Danglard and Renoir imagined. adding the spice of men chasing women chasing men is just enough to make it all utterly chaotic and barely optimistic. articulating it all with excellent costumes makes it a feast for the eyes, and easier to imagine.

a note: a few characters names remained unclear, as the credits with actors did not mention characters specifically; Lola and the serpentine clerk in particular.

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