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March 08, 2006

Going Home with Michel Piccoli


French Can Can
Jean Renoir - 1955
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD


I'm Going Home/Je Rentre a la Maison
Manoel de Oliveira - 2000
Milestone Film & Video Region 1 DVD

That's Michel Piccoli underneath that mop of black hair as Captain Valorguei in Renoir's French Can Can. It took me a little while before I realized it was him. I was unaware that he was even in the film until the credits rolled in the beginning. His presence provides an additional link to seeing Renoir's ode to show business with de Olivera's film about an aging actor. That Piccoli is in both films may also be appropriate considering that his career began just after World War II, and he has worked with several of the greatest filmmakers in French language cinema.

French Can Can was Renoir's return home, his first film shot in France since Rules of the Game. It's the fictionalized story of the producer who created the Moulin Rouge. Jean Gabin is the producer who fleetingly falls in and out of love with a variety of women, continually struggling to pay his bills and keep his show going. The story is less important than the imagery and color which take many of the cues from Toulouse-Lautrec as well as a nod to father Pierre-August Renoir. As Peter Bogdanovich points out in his introduction to the DVD, Jean Renoir uses the art, especially the poster art of the period, as a starting point for his use of color and composition, rather than doing something similar to An American in Paris where Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly dressed and posed dancers to resemble the artwork. Renoir may have missed France, but even more so, he missed a France that disappeared during his childhood.

There is a moment when most of the characters stop to sing "La Marseillaise". This may have been Renoir's way of showing his sense of love and patriotism for his country. It may also have been included to remind his French audience that he had also previously made a film about the French Revolution and the creation of the national anthem.

French Can Can was cut by about fifteen minutes when it originally was released in the United States. For a film of its time, it is quite risque with a couple of scenes of semi-nudity as well as a couple of bedroom scenes, one of which shows that while Jean Gabin wore a nightshirt to bed, Maria Felix had nothing between her and the covers. In an indirect way, Godard's Contempt is the new wave version of French Can Can, again linked with Piccoli in both films. Instead of using the national anthem, Godard bathes Brigitte Bardot with Piccoli in red, white and blue lighting, the color of the French flag. But setting show business stories and intellectual concerns aside, for Renoir and Godard, the essential reason for the invention of cinema was to film hot French babes in their underwear or as nude as possible.

I'm Going Home is a film of quiet glories. De Olivera steps back to observe Piccoli going through his routine at his favorite cafe, or signing autographs for fans. While conversing with his agent, the camera focuses on Piccoli's feet, clad in a new pair of shoes. Parts of the film are seeing Piccoli performing excerpts from Ionesco's Exit the King and Shakespeare's The Tempest, plays featuring older men of royalty in decline. De Olivera is still active at age 96. The film was inspired by an incident in de Olivera's career. If Piccoli's aging actor may be shaky in his performances, de Olivera displays a sureness of cinematic expression of a filmmaker at his peak.

Posted by peter at March 8, 2006 08:15 PM


Catching up with your posts! I love both of these movies. French Can Can I saw on the North American version of TV5 (they had subtitled it, for once!) so I don't know if I saw the uncut version; doubt it. Thought it was great anyway, a big ode to all the good things in life--food, wine, music, sex, and I suppose hot babes as you say. I also loved Piccoli in Je Rentre a la Maison, though I found that a very melancholy picture. Probably my favorite moment of this actor consists of him in the bathtub in Contempt, refusing to remove his hat and declaring that he's being "Deeeen Mahtahn eeen Some Cam Rrrruneeng."

Posted by: Campaspe at March 26, 2006 08:49 PM