Francoise Arnoul

In the films of Jean Renoir, a protagonist moves through episodic scenes, his actions steadily becoming a means of intense personal expression. In climactic scenes, characters realize the nature of their commitment to life and are able to voice it: a joyous fusion of purpose and articulation. At the end of This Land Is Mine (1943), the schoolmaster (Charles Laughton) overcomes his cowardice, refuses to collaborate with the Nazis that have occupied his country, and expresses his conviction in a long speech to the townspeople. As he speaks, the light from the window gives him a presence he had lacked before; we understand that Renoir is showing a man in a state of grace, speaking the beliefs that have made him feel an integral part of humanity. In a different sense, a similar climax is attained in The Golden Coach (1953) when Camilla (Anna Magnani rejects her three lovers, knowing that she expresses herself totally only through the theatre.

In French Cancan (1955), on the opening night of the club Moulin Rouge, Nini (Francoise Arnoul) the star dancer refuses to perform when she sees the owner, Danglar (Jean Gabin) being unfaithful with the star singer. Ordered from her locked dressing room by her mother, she states that she will only dance if Danglar promises to dismiss his other mistresses. Danglar, pinned to the wall, stammers what we had suspected all along: Nini could never keep him tied down; his life is the theatre and he loves only what he creates, while he is creating it. "You!" he says, pointing to Nini, and "You!" to Lola (Maria Felix), a magnificent woman who was once his lover, now a dedicated member of the troupe.

French Cancan is a massive and complicated film. The fifteen minute dance that ends the film is cross-cut with shots of solitary Danglar, not watching his triumphant opening from the nightclub but listening backstage. He doesn't need to watch the girls perform, for they are an expression of his soul; he lives through them. At the same time, Renoir makes it clear that the Cancan girls are individuals, not simply submissive to Danglar's way of life. Though we initially question the individuality of people who happily exist as part of the order of Danglar's universe. Renoir knows that commitment to life on a huge scale is not important; Danglar's life style is grander, more imposing, but the dancers (like Camilla) find life's deepest, most joyful, meaning for themselves through dancing. Nini allows Danglar to leave her, abandons a rich lover and an ex-fiance, choosing the Cancan, not men, as the truest means of self-expression.

Renoir's Jeckyll and Hyde, The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (1960) is also about a progression toward joy through the liberation inherent in total self-expression. But unlike the heroes in most Renoir films, Dr.Cordelier(Jean-Louis Barrault) goes about it incorrectly and fails dismally. Cordelier, inhibited and afraid, his sexual neuroses damaging his medical career, effects the classic Stevensonian chemical transformation and becomes hideous Monsieur Opale, a sadistic savage who cannot resist kicking the crutches out from under a cripple, or wrenching the baby from any passing mother. Predictably, Opale's appearances become progressively vicious during the first two-thirds of the film; but a flashback reveals the tragic truth of Cordelier's folly; when he first became M. Opale, he felt liberated, physically light as air, uninhibited for the first time. Barrault, a brilliant mimist (Les Enfants du Paradis) plays Opale-Hyde as if he were doing a Chaplin imitation. Only in successive transformations does Opale become dangerously depraved, murderous, and maniacal.

Though Cordelier's desire to release the suppressed elements of his nature backfires when he becomes irrevocably Opale, irretrievably evil, Cordelier has a realization before his suicide that gives his tormented life some meaning: he learns that his Jeckyll-Hyde transformations have not altered his soul, as they had his appearance and personality. When Opale takes the last deadly dose of the antidote that returns him to his former state, he knows that though he found misery, not joy, in his attempt, his soul had not been submerged in depravity, and will remain immortal when stripped of the polluted body.

Although Barrault's and Gabin's performances contribute, as does the magnificent photography (note how in French Cancan, Renoir recreates his father's Impressionist pastels), the real greatness of these two films is perhaps undefinable. As the characters move toward one or another stage of self-realization, Renoir's films take on an even larger, universal significance. His spirit, his ability to create characters through use of clear, almost divine, light give his films an aura of undeniable truth, as if he were a Biblical prophet, telling us the word.

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