I think everyone has a favorite time period that they love to see on film or television. For some it is the Middle Ages in England, for others it is the hippie culture of the sixties. For me it is the Belle Epoque in Paris, France. This was the time of Impressionist painters, absinthe, the can-can, top hats and corsets, and most importantly the Moulin Rouge. Starting from a very early age, when I watched Moulin Rouge on constant repeat, I have been obsessed with the many aspects that this famous nightclub represents. So when I saw that Jean Renoir (see previous entry for my fawning over this master director) directed a movie about this time, I couldn’t wait to see it.
French Cancan concerns itself with the people behind the founding of the Moulin Rouge. Although the names are changed, the events are loosely what happened. A veteran theatre owner, Danglard (played by Jean Gabin), decides to go slumming one night in a working class neighborhood (Montmatre). He enters a small dance club with his companions and witnesses the locals doing an old-fashioned dance, the can-can. Inspired by a young laundress who dances the dance with spirit and vigor, he decides to take a chance and buy the small dance club. He comes up with an idea to combine the old-fashioned dance with a vaudeville style theatre. He renames the dance the French cancan in order to appeal towards tourists and sailors. However, it is not all smooth sailing for this theatre owner. He gets caught up in a love triangle, looses backing several times, and nearly gives up on his dream. Only his love for theatre and art fuels him and pushes him to new heights and ideas.
As we watch Danglard struggle to put together the Moulin Rouge and float through several lovers, including the working class laundress turned cancan dancer, we see the subtle dedication he has towards the theatre life. Many people would have given up or had pursued something that would be more financially secure. Instead Danglard puts his own livelihood and the fortunes of his lovers on the line in order realize his dream. Towards the end of the film, Danglard delivers a speech to the laundress who has found out that he is cheating on her in order to get her to come out and perform the dance we have been waiting for. He tells her to set aside her personal life, because that doesn’t matter to a performer. What truly matters to a performer is his art. Art is the only passion she should be concerned with.This speech is probably the best part of the movie because it isn’t just about Danglard and the laundress’ relationship. Instead it is about every act on stage at the Moulin Rouge, every actor portraying a character in the film and even about the director himself. It is about every truly great artist. Life as an artist can be challenging, but it is all in service of a greater good. Danglard understands this truth and sees the same truth inside the laundress. The speech convinces the laundress to come out of her dressing room and dance the cancan. Her joy is evident from the first moment she lifts her leg. At the end of her dance, one of her fellow dancers asks if she is still leaving and she says never. Not only does she understand what Danglard was trying to tell her, but she feels it deep down inside herself.