“WHERE GOLD COMMANDS, laughter vanishes,” says the viceroy to the lusty actress, shortly before he lavishes her with his territory’s most coveted and expensive possession. Full of such delicious ironies, Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952) attests that art and money make for absurd and raucous bedfellows.
The Golden Coach, the first film in what has come to be regarded as a trilogy that includes French Cancan (1954) and Elena and her Men (1956), is Renoir’s tribute to the theater, a play within a play within a film (within a film) that blurs the boundaries between life and stage. Set in eighteenth-century Peru, it stars Anna Magnani as Camilla, a hot-blooded commedia dell’arte player whose spirited performances earn her a motley trio of suitors—ridiculous caricatures of masculinity devised to question the needs of the artist and by extension the conditions of art itself. Renoir reprises this fruitful conceit in French Cancan, in which the transformation of the naive yet spellbinding Nini (Françoise Arnoul) from poor laundress to dance-hall idol delivers her a choice of archetypal lovers promising riches, fame, or fidelity. After plenty of antics and complications, both women choose the incorporeal fourth option—their craft.
The Golden Coach’s final, decidedly wistful claim, after Camilla donates the coach to the church, is that the artist has only one path to happiness and to her true self. Likewise, the climactic dance sequence in French Cancan—one of the most joyous and dazzling ever filmed—is an end that justifies all means. Girls tumble like gems in a kaleidoscope, swirling and twirling into a frenzy where everyone, including conflicted Nini, is all smiles. Here, Renoir’s newfound command of color (French Cancan was only his third color film) reaches its apotheosis, as the director manipulates the possibilities of Technicolor technology to bring movement to life—indeed to elevate it beyond life to spectacle.