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Case Number 05179

Buy Stage And Spectacle: Three Films By Jean Renoir: Criterion Collection at Amazon

Stage And Spectacle: Three Films By Jean Renoir: Criterion Collection

The Golden Coach
1953 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
French Cancan
1955 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Elena And Her Men
1956 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // September 14th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron gets in touch with his Francophilic side over this trio of Jean Renoir classics.

The Charge

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…"

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Opening Statement

Human beings are performers at heart. We rarely go out into the real world without putting on our "game faces," knowing that a lack of preparation in this area will result in our humiliation and/or dismissal as insignificant or boring. In affairs of the heart, we also play at pantomime, relying on romantic tricks we've learned from books or film to fill in the blanks in our own quixotic quagmire. When the lonely reflect on their predicament, they usually come to a singular conclusion: Their interpersonal isolation is based in the concept that no one understands the "real" them. Of course, the proper retort is, "How could they?" As Shakespeare said, the entire realm of existence is a theater, and all of us are acting out roles in its occasionally resplendent, and sometimes redolent, productions. On most occasions, we have the script memorized and deliver a devastating performance. Other times, we flounder in our folly, unable to remember the simplest stage direction, let alone the words to save our skin. This is the reason, perhaps, why actors and other members of the creative arts are looked on with such rose-colored consideration. Since we often find ourselves lost in the production life is putting on, we envy and enthrone those who seemingly have the right expression for any and all moments.

But as Jean Renoir argues in the three films that make up the Stage and Spectacle box set, newly released by the Criterion Collection, actors and performers don't always have all the answers. They are sometimes as incapable of relating to reality as certain plays or portrayals are beyond their range. Indeed, their dedication to life as entertainers has drawbacks that individuals living in the real world don't ever have to contend with. The characters in The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Eléna and Her Men all understand that they are playing roles in a scripted (or in one case, secretive) circumstance. But when required to deviate from the dialogue given or the unexpected plot twists presented, they are just like you or I. Perhaps, they are even less prepared for the consequences of a world without greasepaint or footlights.

Facts of the Case

The three films offered in this collection from Criterion represent director Jean Renoir at the end of his career as a vital force in French filmmaking. After the latest film in the set, 1956's Eléna and Her Men, Renoir would only helm three more features (1959's The Testament of Dr. Cordelier and Lunch in the Grass, and 1962's The Elusive Corporal) and an anthology for television (1967's The Little Theater of Jean Renoir). After spending the vast majority of World War II in Hollywood (where he made such classics as The Southerner and The River), Renoir returned to his native land and focused on making films that would help him reconnect with the French people. These movies represent a departure, of sorts, from the standard themes Renoir explored. Instead of focusing on the class struggles between members of a distaff society, the director invoked love, compassion, dedication and an obvious admiration of the theater. Experimenting with the Technicolor process and spending inordinate amounts of time in pre-production, these films represent a kind of aesthetic zenith for the filmmaker. Individually, the movies presented in this box set are:

• The Golden Coach (Le Carrosse d'or) (1953)
Camilla (Anna Magnani, Mamma Roma, The Rose Tattoo) and her fellow Italian actors arrive in a Central American town to discover that their exclusive booking is in a rundown inn. Indeed, their entrance is upstaged by the simultaneous appearance of the Viceroy's brand new golden coach, a tawdry trinket imported by the ruler as a personal present for his fiancé. The local nobility is disgusted by such a lavish purchase, and begins plotting the monarch's downfall. The actors, meanwhile, fix up their surroundings and put on their performances, which for the most part are warmly received by the peasant crowds. The popularity of these performances makes Camilla a star attraction, and she suddenly finds herself the object of affection for three different men. She is betrothed to Felipe, manager and protector of the company. Ramon, a famous toreador—pigheaded and full of himself—also takes an immediate interest in the fiery female. The final member of this menagerie is the Viceroy himself, a genteel man who embraces his wealth as he shuns the power and complexity that comes with it. So taken is he with Camilla that he grants her ultimate wish—he gives her the golden coach. This act seals his fate and that of everyone involved.

• French Cancan (1955)
Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin, Port of Shadows, The Lower Depths) is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor. As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It's not long before it's opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.

• Eléna and Her Men (Eléna et Les Hommes) (1956)
Eléna Sorkowaska (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca, Notorious) is a Polish princess of questionable nobility. While her financial circumstances are suspect, her effect on men is immense and immediate. Having recently broken off her relationship with an up-and-coming composer (who used the Miss as inspiration for his opera), Eléna is now in need of a benefactor to keep her from the poor house. She accepts the proposal of rubber baron Martin-Michaud, and agrees to move herself and her family into his chalet. During a Bastille Day celebration she meets Henri, advisor to French war hero (and possible political agitator) General Rollan. He is instantly smitten by her charms. So is the military man himself, when he meets her. Soon Eléna is juggling all three gentlemen, as each tries to find a way to gain her affections. Rollan's consultants want the general to overthrow the government. He will not do it without Eléna. Martin-Michaud is willing to give up his bride-to-be for favorable taxation and business dealings with the new regime. But Henri only wants to love Eléna, something the usually kept lady just doesn't understand.

The Evidence

Sensing that the German occupation meant an end to his artistic, as well as his personal, freedom, famed director Jean Renoir left France for America, an act that many in his homeland felt was a betrayal (it is reported that actor Jean Gabin never forgave him for this "cowardly" decision). Renoir had been a force in the denouncement—albeit subtly—of France and its clueless, careless ruling class (the result being the masterwork The Rules of the Game) and the insanity of war (Renoir's other great masterpiece, Grand Illusion). He had foreseen the kind of arrogant self-centeredness that would lead his nation to be drowned in the wave of Nazi supremacy. But when the turmoil was all over and the damage done, Renoir wanted to return home. His time in Hollywood had been miserable, and he longed for the autonomy he had in France. But he also had loftier ambitions. He wanted to reawaken his countrymen, hoping to provide them with fodder for a kind of aesthetic as well as sociological Renaissance. He wished to remind them of how art and performance can reshape a nation and its natives.

The result was the films offered in this set: three tales regarding the impact of the theater, performance and passion as a way of swaying events and turning the tide of chaos. Throughout each of these movies, Renoir dispenses with the more "humanistic" elements of his usual style to create a refreshing air of fantasy. He also removes much of his critical analysis of the still endemic class differences in French society to make a plea for understanding and brotherhood. Like the actors in The Golden Coach, the performers in French Cancan, or the conspirators in Eléna and Her Men, Renoir argues that solidarity shapes the most successful of strategies, and that once those bonds are broken, the results are as unpredictable as a life in the limelight can be.

Love, of course, is the other major thematic element in all of these films, from the multiple romances of Eléna to the fickle feelings scattered throughout the world of the Moulin Rouge. It is interesting to note that while each film is distinct in story, every movie here revolves around a woman (Camilla, Nini, Eléna) being wooed by three distinct men: for Camilla—the Viceroy, the bullfighter, the manager; for Nini—Danglard, the Prince, the baker boy Paolo; for Eléna—the merchant Martin-Michaud, the General Rollan and his aide, Henri. Renoir has always been a director who enjoyed the heart of the matter more than the head, and while all of these narratives are complex in their construction and execution, they each can be boiled down to a very basic message. In the case of Camilla and The Golden Coach, we witness how misplaced affection, guided on by our heroine's inability to shed her performing persona and interrelate with the men, brings about heartache. For Eléna, the devotion is all too reciprocal; she seems as foolishly taken with every man she sees as they are with her. And, again, the results are bittersweet. Then there are Nini and Lola, the two women at the center of the quest for the Moulin Rouge. Each uses love to validate her life, while they soon come to realize that men won't always understand or even return the emotion.

While Renoir has always been a champion of simplicity, he crafts amazingly dense and detailed settings here in which to layout his uncomplicated concepts. Even as far back as The Rules of the Game or The Lower Depths, Renoir has always used the grand spectacle as a means of emphasizing the inner workings of his commentary. What better way to fool the unyielding public than to overwhelm them with the rich and sumptuous, all the while using your message as a subliminal basis for it all? Watching one of Renoir's movies with this idea in mind opens up an entirely new world of cinematic experiences, more than just the marvelous visuals, exceptional acting, and satisfying stories the director utilizes. Outside of the ties to the theater (with the exception of Eléna) and the overall focus on women in love, the three movies offered in the Stage and Spectacle box set are all wildly different. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss each one individually so as to understand what Renoir was trying to accomplish. We begin with:

• The Golden Coach
If ever a film were completely centered on one single actress, it would be The Golden Coach. Anna Magnani, so full of life and suppressed sexuality that the heat practically radiates off the screen, is absolutely flawless as Camilla, the love-starved actress looking for happiness in spite of her circumstances. It is her performance and character that hold the fragile fantasy elements of The Golden Coach together. While there seem to be certain elements of political and/or social commentary in Renoir's scenarios (the jibes at the nobility are far too obvious to overlook), this film is really more of a meditation on the existence of an actress, and more specifically, on how the lines between performance and personal life can blur, or even disappear. Using the ingenious framing element of having the movie open like a play, with a curtain rising and falling on the grand entrance to the Viceroy's castle, Renoir is telling us that he intends to eradicate the separation between staged and human reality (he even admits to this aim in his "introduction" to the film). But Renoir takes the conceit one step further, creating French farce—as in sequences where various individuals with competing agendas find themselves at cross purposes while a single individual (the Viceroy, Camilla) attempts to control the burgeoning chaos. Done far less for humor's sake than for the purpose of pushing the real world into the realm of the surreal and/or spectacle, The Golden Coach is a genuine attempt by Renoir to marry the worlds of the theater and its patrons, to show how interlocked—for both bad and good—the two realms really are.

This does not mean that Renoir has created some manner of complex or convoluted deconstruction of the acting profession. Indeed, the overall tone of The Golden Coach is light and airy, with an overwhelming touch of sadness and the sentimental tossed in for balance. Each member of Camilla's triangle of lovers represents a different element of the male persona, as well as facets of the actress's own standards. Ramon is the cocksure bullfighter who believes in a machismo-based philosophy that today would be labeled hyper-chauvinistic. He wants Camilla not so much as a lover but as a prize, a trophy wife before such a concept was part of the vernacular. On the opposite end is the Viceroy, a man so infatuated with the idea of love—and in this case, loving a member of the menial class—that he tosses aside his regal responsibilities. Only when compelled to fight for the women he loves does he take an aggressive stance. The rest of the time his actions, from the gift of the coach to the decision to jeopardize his throne, are all seen as the acts of a passive paramour. Of all the men after Camilla, the Viceroy seems the most undeserving of her affections. He comes across as too mannered and easily manipulated. Perhaps the sole underdeveloped individual in the entire film is the manager Felipe. He is distant when he should be demanding, and brutish when circumstances require a more contemplative approach. Possibly representing the passions of the past that Camilla must overcome, or even embrace, this stoic stiff with a fast temper fails to ignite a lot of sympathy via his actions and ideas. Frankly, it is difficult for us to envision any one of these men with Magnani. Though we know she needs them (the marvelous last words of the movie illustrate this beautifully), her own limitations as a lover, and liver of life, indicates that she only bring out the basics in those she cares for.

Otherwise, The Golden Coach is a brilliant historical throwback, a costume drama as comedic romance with a little re-creation thrown in on the side. The staged elements of the movie are magnificent, using the Commedia dell'Arte format to provide some theatrical as well as historical providence. Renoir is, like his father, a magician in the use of form and color and the constant references to the palette of the harlequin (a standard symbol in Italian entertainment) as well as the distinctions between the hues of wealth (gold, silver) and the tones of the people (earthy and rich) make The Golden Coach a visual feast. Renoir also has great command of his mise-en-scene here, using composing, framing, and the cutting together of sequences to keep his film locked in a clockwork pace. One slip and the entire story would go slightly askew.

But thanks to the excellent control exercised by this cinematic genius, The Golden Coach never stumbles. Indeed, even in moments of obvious slapstick (the noblemen's meeting, the final battle for Camilla's honor) Renoir uses his camera as a kind of intentional interloper, capturing the issues raised behind and in front of the theater scrim. While Renoir could have explored these backstage shenanigans more blatantly, as he does later in French Cancan, The Golden Coach is still a stirring testament to the power of love, and hindrance of performance. It is a mesmerizing film of imagination and magic.

One last item of interest is the fact that The Golden Coach is the sole film in this box set to feature an English soundtrack. Originally recorded in said language, but later dubbed into awful, awkward French and Italian versions, this is the true way to experience this film. Magnani, who could not speak the language at the time, gives an amazing phonetic performance that adds an element of charm and social vulnerability to her decisive and demanding character. While it's odd to hear the blatantly American drawl of Paul Campbell (as Felipe) or cultured British brogue of Duncan Lamont (as the Viceroy) matched up against Magnani, the undercurrent of frailty this provides the star more than makes up for any awkwardness. This, along with the expert use of Vivaldi's classical masterworks as his score, makes The Golden Coach an aural as well as visual feast.

• French Cancan
As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir's black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.

While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman's compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an "apology" of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.

Jean Gabin, one of France's all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world's backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.

As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard's productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.

Fans of Renoir's work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel). Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the "normal" life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.

Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir's own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.

An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir's native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.

• Eléna and Her Men
Of the three movies in this set, Eléna and Her Men is perhaps the least seen, and least successful, of Renoir's films. The director even admits so in his comments that precede the film. Wanting to tell the story of a tragic political figure, General George Boulanger (who plotted—unsuccessfully—the overthrow of the French government), Renoir drafted a script which placed Eléna smack dab in the middle of this burgeoning national crisis. It was to be a comedy, but with much more of an edge (similar to Renoir's pre-War films). One day, the director realized the effect his farce would have on the family and friends of the historic man, so right before filming the screenplay was scrapped and, as Renoir states, an entire movie was made via a combination of certain plot elements and improvisation.

This is, perhaps, the reason why Eléna and Her Men is so schizophrenic. On one hand it is a magnificent movie to look at, a set and costume designer's dream. And it does contain a wealth of gifted (and in the case of Bergman, gorgeous) performers doing some of their best work. But the many magnificent moments never gel together, and the lackluster characterization renders everything trivial and superficial. The one thing Renoir is known for is the amount of detail and diligence he places into his films, allowing depth to rise up from both the major and minor facets. But in Eléna and Her Men, all the profundity is missing. The result is a movie that looks and plays marvelously, but lacks the lasting impression of its companion pieces.

Primary to the problems is Bergman's Eléna. If we are to only believe that she is a stunning woman able to get men to do what she wants due to her incredible looks, said disbelief is quickly suspended. The famous Hollywood superstar was always a striking actress, with the kind of ethereal beauty that epic poems—and classic films—are crafted upon. Her Eléna is no different: like the head of one of Cupid's harpoons, she immediately becomes the object of everyone's desire. Yet we never understand why she lives her life as such a wanton woman. At one point in the plot, she is juggling three men while half-heartedly fighting off the advances of others. She claims to be looking for love, but the pocketbook could also be the basis for many of her decisions. Indeed, we do not know, and one of the great flaws in Eléna and Her Men is that we never understand this so-called princess's motivations. Again, if all she requires is a sugar daddy, then all the machinations with General Rollan and Henri seem pointless. If there is more to her desires than that, we are never told. Instead, Bergman is stuck playing a polite flibbertigibbet, the kind of helpless royal who many would consider scandalous is she wasn't so pure in her personal morality. It's not as though she has men of great depth to play off. Mel Ferrer's Henri is just an infatuated fool, the kind of guy who pursues a woman even when she's consistently rejecting him. The meal ticket Martin-Michaud is another flat-out archetype, the doddering old money man who sees his far younger bride-to-be as another chattel in his already overflowing coffers. About the only enigmatic man in the bunch is General Rollan, and even he is hampered by inconsistent callings. On one hand, he loves Eléna and cannot function without her. On the other, he is serious about his political ambitions and more than willing to make the sacrifices necessary for power.

Some or all of these faults in the characters, as well as other components of the film, lie with Renoir's last-minute "unscripted" approach. Without a meticulously crafted narrative upon which to hang his humoresque images, Renoir is like an artist lacking a concrete canvas to work on. He allows plot points and characters to meander around meaninglessly, while avoiding obvious elements like purpose and plausibility. He follows sensational visual elements with flat, lifeless dialogue exchanges. When all else fails and he can't think of something original to do, he goes back to his canon of films and lifts tricks he utilized before to try and shape his story. That is why we have another servants-chasing-chambermaids and noblemen-chasing-ladies sequence, a strange case of deja vu straight out of The Rules of the Game. Similarly, a sequence in which Eléna is moved along the streets of Paris by a Bastille Day crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of Gen. Rollan looks familiar to similar set pieces in French Cancan.

With its elements of comedy coming into direct contradiction with the intrigue and subterfuge, while other moments simply stick out like sore spots (the last-minute arrival of a clan of gypsies, the constant meddling of General Rollan's old girlfriend), this is a very uneven film. And yet, somehow, Renoir manages to create something incredibly watchable and ostensibly entertaining. We don't really care very much what happens to the characters here (unless it's an external hope that their various actions all end up coming to some manner of conclusion), but we truly enjoy the beautiful backdrops and exquisite settings Renoir guides us through. There is not a great deal of symbolic meaning to Eléna and Her Men, but it is still a wonderfully evocative piffle.

The inclusion of French Cancan and The Golden Coach makes the Stage and Spectacle box set a necessary purchase for any lover of film as an art form. Renoir's work in these two films is addictive, like a box of succulent chocolates for all the media senses. From Anna Magnani's mesmerizing screen presence to the final Cancan dance number, these films celebrate the joy in the moving picture, the combination of color and composition with sound and vision to create an animated work of art. Modern audiences raised on rapid-fire action or completely spelled-out sentiments may have to reconfigure their movie-watching equilibrium to enjoy these more measured films, but the intense entertainment factor that each provides is more than enough to guide them through.

It is not fair, however, to dismiss Eléna and Her Men outright. This flawed and yet fulfilling movie does have its heart, if not its histrionics, in the right place. Ingrid Bergman's beauty and the overall atmosphere of optical delight Renoir creates save the film from creaking to a halt several times. As "lesser" Renoir, it is still head and shoulders above other filmmakers. But when compared to the magnificence of its companion pieces here, Eléna and Her Men can't help but feel like a second-class passenger in a first-class traveling compartment. Still, with Renoir as the captain, this is one ship that will safely moor to the harbor of cinema classics while others are merely cast adrift.

To say that the transfers Criterion offers here are stunning is to make one of the most ludicrous critical understatements in the realm of film reviewing. These movies are pristine, picture-perfect examples of cine-magic. Criterion collects what has to be some of the most vibrant and vivacious prints ever committed to celluloid, and polishes them to a near-faultless sheen. French Cancan is so beautiful it will make you cry, while Eléna and Her Men has the power to render one breathless with its charms. The only issue apparent in any of the transfers is the restoration of the final few minutes of The Golden Coach. Renoir's original ending had Magnani taking a bow in front of his faux film theater curtain while responding to some very profound questions asked by a fellow actor. The element being used to flesh out this film to its original version is hampered by a fuzzy, indistinct print that has color and contrast issues. While it doesn't take away from the movie's impact (the final words spoken here more than make up for it), one does feel a small amount of disappointment that this portion is not as amazing as the others. Still, for those who champion the crispness and the rainbow range of the old three-strip process, these Technicolor dreamscapes will transform your DVD player into a museum exhibit of glorious artistic treasures. Movies just don't look as good as the films in the Stage and Spectacle set.

Sonically, there is not much Criterion can do with plain old Dolby Digital Mono. All three films sound excellent, clean, and distortion-free—most of the time. Renoir, like most filmmakers of his age, often failed to grasp the limitations of his sonic technology, and there are times—usually in crowd scenes or during a combination of action and rapid underscoring—when the aural attributes begin to buzz. Overall though, these films are superbly reproduced, given a magnificent audio clarity that really removes the hiss and flatness from the soundtrack. As The Golden Coach is in English, there is no need to worry about the translation. But both Eléna and Her Men and French Cancan are in their original French-language versions. Thankfully, the subtitles are easy to understand and represent a decent attempt—without being too literal—at accurately translating the dialogue between the actors.

On the Criterion release of Renoir's The Rules of the Game, the first installment of a two-part BBC documentary on the director was presented. It covered the artist's pre-War films and dealt with the horrible reaction to Rules in France. Part Two is presented here, and the walk through Renoir's later life is equally fascinating. Picking up with his flight to America in 1941, and dealing with the movies the filmmaker crafted while part of the Hollywood system (and beyond), it is one of the most moving and magnificent retrospectives of a famed career ever offered. Found on the Eléna and Her Men disc, this documentary is one example of the reason Criterion always excels in the area of bonus features.

But the wealth of context does not end there. On each of the DVDs in this set, a portion of Jacques Rivette's three-part interview with Renoir for French television, entitled Jean Renoir Parle De Son Art (Jean Renoir Discusses His Art), is featured. This is an amazing conversation between two intelligent individuals. In what becomes less a dissertation on Renoir's films and more a debate over the value of realism and technology in the pursuit of art, Renoir proves his mantle as a man of incredible depth and vision. He argues over the continual destruction of the motion picture as an expression of creative intent by such novelties as sound, neorealism, widescreen, and the advances in the science of filmmaking. Taking actors to task for failing to capture the truth in their performances and arguing against quick cutting and other directorial tricks, Renoir notes that the closer movies come to perfection, the more they lack in personality. Indeed, the entire presentation on this amazing bonus feature is Renoir's formulation of a theory: the theory of the auteur. He predicts the downfall of the current Hollywood film—he is disgusted with moviemaking by committee and group input—while he argues that movies made by one or two individuals, without interference, may not be faultless, but will be imbued with the distinct flavors of the individual personas. This human element is far more important to Renoir than flawless craftsmanship.

The remaining extras contained on this set are similarly interesting. The set designer on French Cancan, Max Douy, describes how all facets of the visual imagery in a film—costume, makeup, lighting, and set design—work together to craft the proper balance between realism and fantasy, color and contrast. While engaging to listen to, Douy is only onscreen for about six minutes. French Cancan also contains a marvelous gallery of production stills, many showing some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the shoot. The same goes for The Golden Coach and Eléna. Jean Renoir "introduces" Coach and Eléna with a snippet—from four to eight minutes each—of information about his designs and intent for each movie. These sequences, from a French television show on Renoir's career, can contain minor spoilers, so watch them at your own risk before partaking of each film. Similar sentiments can be expressed for the two "celebrity" introductions in this set. Martin Scorsese is a true film buff and knows to keep his comments short and sweet when dealing with The Golden Coach. Peter Bogdanovich, on the other hand, has a lot of insightful things to say about French Cancan, but he can also gives away important details about the story's dramatic arc. Equally insightful and plot specific are the essays contained in the insert for each film. Covering all facets of the films and featuring the works of both critics and historians, these are the final icing on this glorious, colorful, and rich DVD cake.

Closing Statement

The movies offered as part of Criterion's Stage and Spectacle box set represent Jean Renoir at the peak of his visual acumen. They feature images so stunning and a cinematic style so exceptional that few can match their way with color or a camera. Yet, sadly, when the great works of this great man are discussed, few offer up French Cancan or The Golden Coach as equal to The Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion. But what this DVD package makes clear is that both films—and in some inconsistent ways, Eléna and Her Men—hold up against the certified Renoir classics quite well, if not completely. Just as Rules and Illusion condemned a world on the brink of war, Coach and Cancan celebrate a future as bright and shining as the gold on the Viceroy's expensive carriage. All of these films focus on the past (though a highly stylized version of said) to showcase the potential for the present, to recall a time where a pure love of life guided most people. For Renoir, the famous words of Shakespeare are worth noting, but not necessarily living by. He realizes the stark differences between a life in the theater and an existence among the truisms of the world. In Renoir's realm, the rules are simple. People are to be themselves first, determine their dedication, and then put on the appropriate mask. We may all be performers on life's proscenium, but sometimes our role is as audience.

Thankfully, Jean Renoir provided many a magical world for us to get lost in. The Golden Coach and French Cancan are outright works of filmmaking genius. They, along with the equally evocative Eléna and Her Men make this collection of films one of the most magnificent testaments to moviemaking ever. And confirm Jean Renoir as an artist equal to his famous painter father.

The Verdict

Not guilty! Case dismissed! This is one of the best box sets of the year and Criterion has again provided us with magnificent transfers of some meaningful movies.

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• Classic
• Drama
• Foreign

Scales of Justice, The Golden Coach

Video: 90
Audio: 80
Extras: 90
Acting: 100
Story: 95
Judgment: 91

Perp Profile, The Golden Coach

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Golden Coach

• Introduction to the Film by Jean Renoir
• Introduction to the Film by Martin Scorsese
• Part One of "Jean Renoir Parle De Son Art," a Three-Part Interview of Filmmaker Jean Renoir by Jacques Rivette
• Gallery of Rare Production Stills
• Color Insert with Essays

Scales of Justice, French Cancan

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 95
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 98

Perp Profile, French Cancan

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• English
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, French Cancan

• Introduction to the Film by Peter Bogdanovich
• Part Two of "Jean Renoir Parle De Son Art," a Three-Part Interview of Filmmaker Jean Renoir by Jacques Rivette
• Interview with Set Designer Max Douy
• Gallery of Rare Production Stills
• Color Insert with Essays

Scales of Justice, Elena And Her Men

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 95
Acting: 95
Story: 80
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Elena And Her Men

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• English
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Elena And Her Men

• Introduction to the Film by Jean Renoir
• Part Two of "Jean Renoir Parle De Son Art," a Three-Part Interview of Filmmaker Jean Renoir by Jacques Rivette
• Part Two of BBC Omnibus Presentation: "Jean Renoir: Hollywood and Beyond"
• Gallery of Rare Production Stills
• Color Insert with Essays

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