Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir
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"My characters in Le Carrosse d'Or [The Golden Coach], Elena et les Hommes [Elena and Her Men] and French Cancan are what it is customary to describe as unlifelike. But it is possible to be improbable and still true, and truth itself is generally improbable."

—Jean Renoir

When Jean Renoir made The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956) late in his career, he had not envisioned the films as a trio. However, their common themes and their characters torn between different ways of life (symbolized by competing lovers) are so similar that even Renoir himself later admitted that they were easily grouped together. Each film explored different aspects of his consuming interest in life-as-theater. The Criterion Collection DVD box set of this trilogy, titled "Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir," has a wealth of special features that support and further elaborate on his philosophy.

Though the films are similar in spirit, Renoir explores widely different worlds in each film. In The Golden Coach, a band of eighteenth century Italian commedia dell'arte performers travel to Peru; French Cancan is Renoir's love call to Paris and its performance halls; and the events of Elena and Her Men hurtle from a raucous Bastille Day parade to a mansion, a battlefield, and finally a country hotel. Despite their varied surroundings, all of the films explore politics, love, money, and society. The light-hearted stories may appear on the surface to be the soothing work of an aging director bent on entertaining, but on closer viewing, the bright colors and fast action only enhance his deeper themes.

Anna Magnani stars in The Golden Coach.
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The tangle of competing lovers around the main characters in the trio is a microcosm of the overarching themes of each film. Elena must choose between her elderly, but rich fiancée, the aimless but exciting dilettante Henri (Mel Ferrer) and the celebrated but slightly dim General Rollan (Jean Marais, based on the real General Georges Boulanger). Camilla (Anna Magnani) of The Golden Coach can't decide who impresses her most, a hotheaded bullfighter (Riccardo Rioli), an amorous and powerful viceroy, or her old suitor from Italy (Paul Campbell). Not only is Nini (Francoise Arnoul) of French Cancan unsure whether to pick her first love, a smitten foreign Prince, or her slick benefactor Henri (Jean Gabin), but Gabin is also in the midst of a love affair with the fiery Lola De Castro (Maria Felix). It should be noted that he is different in that he does not intend to choose between his lovers; in fact, by the end of the film he has already found himself a new conquest.

In all cases, choosing between lovers does not offer these characters salvation. The theater and spectacle offer the most satisfying refuge from the confusion of their lives. Though Elena ends up in a clinch with Henri, the embrace causes the daisy that has symbolized her inspiring effect on the world to drop to her feet; the move makes a supposedly happy ending seem bittersweet. In her final scene, Camilla is onstage alone; all three of her lovers have departed. When asked if she misses them, she is somewhat sentimental, but does not deeply regret their departure. Even Nini finds that she can't rely on love and she turns to the theater.

The cancan girls at work in French Cancan.
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Among the three, only French Cancan was a success upon its first release. In the years since, The Golden Coach has won the strongest critical opinion, primarily because of Anna Magnani's dynamic performance, which was a departure from her usual rough and realistic roles. Overall, Elena is the weakest film, though its momentum and general hilarity roll along fast enough to keep it entertaining. In all cases, the actresses have enough charisma to draw attention to themselves, despite the craziness around them. Gabin has an entirely different effect; he garners more attention for the dual attractions of his insouciant magnetism and the thrill of seeing him in yet another Renoir film.

The special features in the Criterion Collection set include several interviews and clips with Renoir himself explaining his philosophies of theater and how they relate to life. He is vibrant and humorous in the two short introductions he filmed for The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men in the sixties. Even more interesting is his three-part interview with filmmaker Jacques Rivette. Renoir is intense and deadly serious while discussing his art and it is remarkable how many of his comments remain relevant today.

Ingrid Bergman stars in Elena and Her Men.
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For other perspectives on Renoir, directors Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorcese give thoughtful and informative introductions. In an interview, set designer Max Douy offers some of the most revealing insights about his former co-worker. Part two of a 1993 BBC documentary of Renoir by David Thompson has a satisfying mix of clips, interviews, and films of Renoir late in his life, which fills out the portrait of the director.

In a trio of films filled with outrageously artificial performances and situations, Renoir turns the world into a theater that reveals core truths about human nature, though it nearly conceals its seriousness with costumes, songs, comedy, and dance. They are not the most celebrated of Renoir's films, but they are among his strongest work and worthy of high acclaim.

The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena and Her Men are now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection as a three disc set titled "Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir." The films are available in new high-definition digital transfers with restored image and sound. Special features: introductions to The Golden Coach and Eléna and Her Men by Jean Renoir; video introductions by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich; Jean Renoir—Hollywood and Beyond, part two of the BBC documentary by David Thompson; three-part interview with Renoir conducted by French New Wave director Jacques Rivette (The Nun, La Belle noiseuse); and an exclusive interview with set designer Max Douy. Suggested retail price: $79.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.