Jean Renoir is one of my favorite directors. His creative insights into the human psychology speak to me and hit just the right notes. I have reviewed a couple of Jean Renoir movies on this blog before, but nothing from his later period. Over the next couple of days, I am going to rectify this by attacking a Criterion box set of three late period movies. Although each film tells a completely different story, set in a different time period and with different stars, they are each linked by their nuanced exploration of choosing art over love.
The Golden Coach stars Anna Magnani in her English language debut as the leader of a theatre troupe that has traveled to the New World (South America) from Italy in the late 1700s. As Camilla (Magnani) and her troupe arrive, so does a beautiful gold coach ordered by the Viceroy of the conquered colony. The moment she steps on stage to be the beautiful yet clumsy clown, she holds her audience at a pause. Men fall for her. By the middle of the film, she has attracted two men, a famous bullfighter and the Viceroy, along with a solider boyfriend she brings along. Her and the Viceroy share a relationship that is mostly made out of coy turn of phrases and laughter. To seemingly declare his love for her, he gives her the gold coach that was meant for his previous mistress. The government he is a part of is angered by such audacity.They threaten to take the Viceroy title away from the gentleman, so Camilla gives the coach to the bishop of the town. While this is happening each man is warring over her affections. She cannot seem to fully commit to either man, choosing instead to step onto the stage and act.
What I failed to communicate in the earlier paragraph of plot summary is the constant images of rich versus poor. This was a time in history where the men wore wigs and the women wore complicated and ornate dresses. The rich stay in their house, bored with their many possessions and games of whist. While the poor and native people enjoy a night out at the theater Camilla’s troupe sets out. They are able to hoot and holler, get angry, throw things and laugh to their heart’s content. While the rich people are expected to be polite. I think that Jean Renoir focused mostly on the Viceroy as the only real competition to her heart because it would give him a chance to contrast the two groups of people so dramatically. After performing in the Viceroy’s home, the theatre manager is asked if the ladies could be presented to him. While there were two other women in the troupe, the only one suited for the job is Camilla. She wears no wig, sports a checkered dress that she wore on stage and is generally a mess. As she is introduced to all of the elite that she had just entertained, she is looked down and made fun of as being quaint. No one is willing to get too near her. Except for the Viceroy. Within a couple of minutes of meeting her, he instantly recognizes a compatriot in her and takes off his wig. He is sick of pretending to be happy and desperately wants the real thing. She represents the wild nature of his personality. He throws himself into an affair that she only seems half committed to. The Viceroy is set up for failure, but at least he will experience a small freedom until that time comes.
Throughout the whole film, Renoir inserts extensive scenes of commedia del’arte (Italian theatre) with Camilla showcasing her talents. Being able to witness period theatre was probably the best part for me. Each part is a version of a stereotype, the costumes are ridiculous and the plot is contrived, but it still breathes with beautiful artificiality. This artificiality bleeds over to the scenes outside of the performance on stage. Renoir is not interested in telling a story that is realistic or down to earth. Instead he is more interested in heightening the sensations in order to lead to a richer exploration of his themes. Each scene finds Camilla boldly and boisterously commanding her feelings and making speeches as if she were on stage. At the beginning of the film, she questions whether being on stage is worth it, but by the end of the film she is convinced it is the only way to live. She seems to be nothing without her craft. No man can fill that void, no matter how golden their coach is.