If you're anything like me, this is just about that point in the summer season when you start turning more and more to your DVD player for solace. The multiplexes are filled with back-to-back showings of Catwoman and I, Robot and there's nothing much of interest on the horizon, unless you're perverse enough to find the prospect of an Alien Vs. Predator throwdown "interesting."
Still, why fight it? Spectacle is what summer's all about, after all — and after a decades-long diet of the stuff, it's probably even hard-wired into our genetic make-up to expect it between the months of May and September.
Fortunately, spectacle doesn't necessarily have to be spectacularly empty-headed. For proof, turn to Jean Renoir.
Nobody understood spectacle like Renoir, the legendary French filmmaker whose greatest movies tinkered with the timeless notion of life as a stage strutted and fretted upon by poor players like you and me. Spectacle, for Renoir, was always about something beautiful to listen to and look at (he was, after all, the son of the great Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir), but it was first and foremost about people — people as performers in the stories that become our lives. Renoir loved that big, colorful dance between reality and artifice, and nowhere is this dance seen to better effect than in the three gloriously over-stuffed films collected in the Criterion Collection's new box set Stage and Spectacle.
Renoir was responsible for a string of powerful but often dauntingly naturalistic masterpieces back in the '30s, culminating with 1939's The Rules of the Game, a film soundly rejected in its day but that now regularly tops critics' Best Films of All Time lists. The failure of Rules sent Renoir packing for Hollywood, where he labored for a decade, but he eventually returned to Europe to create the trilogy of films included here: The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1955) and Elena and Her Men (1956). Each of these films is a deceptively light and glossy entertainment that, while a world away from the gritty social dramas that made the director's rep in the '30s, playfully expands the most central themes of Renoir's more "serious" efforts.
Renoir designed his '50s movies as crowd-pleasers, and they are — a quality that no doubt contributed to them being dissed by critics as somehow lesser creations. The truth of the matter is that these are some of Renoir's richest works, as well as his most purely enjoyable, with a lot going on beneath those undeniably pretty surfaces.
All three of these movies are about romantic triangles, and sometimes triangles within triangles, with art squaring off against real life (art always wins), and with a big, charismatic star or two at the center of each. The Golden Coach features the grand Italian diva Anna Magnani as an early 18th-century Italian commedia dell' arte actress who breaks the hearts of a Spanish solider, a Viceroy and a bullfighter. French Cancan stars French cinema icon Jean Gabin as a theatrical impresario having affairs with three women, even as one of his mistresses juggles three men of her own. Elena and Her Men features Ingrid Bergman, at her most beautiful, as a poor but lively Polish widow torn between a wealthy merchant, an aristocrat and a powerful general.
Renoir wrote the script for The Golden Coach while listening to Vivaldi (he considered the long-dead composer his "principal collaborator"), and the film is a feast for the senses, structured around music as much as décor, image composition and color. Mostly, though, The Golden Coach is built around Magnani, whose earthy performance anchors a production that might otherwise have floated off into the ether. The film is basically a romantic farce, but its underlying emotional truth — Magnani's character is an actress who ultimately prefers her audience to any of her lovers — drives home the primacy of art even as it blurs the lines between acting on a stage and acting in real life. It's easy to see how Martin Scorsese, in his filmed introduction to this sly, sumptuous production, admits to feeling "overwhelmed" watching the film, as if "standing in the presence of a great fresco."
Peter Bogdanovich provides the DVD's introduction to French Cancan. He likens the film to a Mozart composition for its effortless symmetry, but there's also a superficial resemblance to An American in Paris and other Hollywood musicals of its era. The movie details the rise of Paris' legendary Moulin Rouge in the 1880s, with a young local (Francoise Arnoul) working her way up from local laundress to big star, even as she works her way through a series of lovers (each representing a different class, temperament and profession). The movie perfectly evokes the late 19th century Paris of Renoir's father, in a way that feels both gloriously artificial (it was completely shot on studio sets) and absolutely authentic, right down to those loving close-ups of Gabin drinking absinthe. Gabin is noticeably longer in the tooth than in his previous collaboration with Renoir (1938's La Bete Humaine) but he still commands the screen, as do the other actors, particularly the intoxicating Mexican superstar Maria Felix. Virtually every shot is a pure pleasure, and Edith Piaf even shows up toward the end to wow us with a song.
Probably the least seen of these films, Elena and Her Men has previously been available stateside only as a mangled, English-dubbed version known as Paris Does Strange Things, which prompted Renoir to swear off filmmaking for three years, declaring "The whole thing makes me sick!" Criterion has restored the original French version, re-instating Renoir's carefully calibrated three-act structure, complete with all its wonderful set pieces, witty wordplay and gentle slapstick. The movie might just be the best comedy you'll ever see about a coup d'etat, with Bergman's character flitting between lovers, one of whom is a famous general (Jean Marais) she's hoping to inspire to seize control of the republic. With its silky but complex weave of politics, social commentary and romantic entanglements, Elena sometimes plays like a frothier Rules of the Game, topped off by some gorgeous sets, a duel or two and even a band of exotic gypsies led by French superstar Juliette Greco. Now that's spectacle.
Criterion's beautifully packaged 3-DVD box set features eye-popping transfers and extensive and indispensable supplementary material for all three films, including introductions by Renoir (as well as Scorsese and Bogdanovich) and Jacques Rivette's three-part television interview with Renoir from 1961. There's also a separate documentary on Renoir's later years in Hollywood and beyond, an interview with set designer Max Douy, production stills, and printed essays by Andrew Sarris, Christopher Faulkner and, best of all, Jonathan Rosenbaum. In all, this is a film lover's dream set, and not to be missed.