French Cancan

  • Film
  • Drama
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Ah, London, city of cultural plenty! What’s it to be then – take in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s ‘At the Theatre’ among the impressionists at the National Gallery, or catch ‘French Cancan’, his son Jean’s glowing cinematic tribute to the stage, digitally restored and on screen at the BFI Southbank? Given the family tradition, you feel uncannily in touch with the Paris of the Naughty Nineties even though the film was made in 1955. Its story of high-kicking, knicker-flashing antics at the Moulin Rouge eschews strict historical accuracy, yet somehow it’s more ineffably authentic than the John Huston or Baz Luhrmann model.

 Renoir’s studio confection in succulent colour runs along Hollywoodian puttin’-on-a-show lines, with veteran Jean Gabin the canny impresario juggling fractious backers, ferociously jealous belly-dancer María Félix, and the laundry-girl (Françoise Arnoul) he’s grooming for stardom. The dance can be choreographed but the human heart’s not so malleable, especially when caught ’twixt romance and success.

Conventional enough – yet Renoir’s seasoned wisdom always imbues his characters with a flawed, rounded humanity, even as the plot’s bustling its way towards giddy lift-off in the finale. Along the way, there’s an Edith Piaf cameo and an early sighting of the great Michel Piccoli. Renoir’s affectionate, unsentimental estimation is that such backstage dramas are part and parcel of the spectacle under lights – art and the making of art are to be equally enjoyed, endured and lived. Go on, treat yourself.

Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday August 5 2011
Duration: 102 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenwriter: Jean Renoir
Cast: Jean Gabin
Françoise Arnoul
Maria Félix
Gianni Esposito
Philippe Clay
Michel Piccoli
Edith Piaf
Dora Doll
Patachou

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