The main reason I started this blog was to make me watch more movies, and to vary the kinds of movies I watched. The first part of that has been well and truly accomplished with me watching hundreds of movies for the first time, instead of falling back on old favourites over and over again. But l’m not sure if I’ve varied my selections enough. I still watch mainly American movies, with directors, writers and actors that make them a pretty safe bet. So this year, I’m forcing myself to seek out more international movies. With Foreign Language Weekends, every weekend(ish) during 2016, I’ll review two(ish) non-English language movies.
When I was in Paris a decade ago, seeing the Moulin Rouge from the outside was more than enough. Its mystique has long since passed and its tourist attraction nature has made it more like a theme park version of Paris than the real thing. There really was no need to go in. I’ve never bothered to watch Baz Luhrmann’s movie of the same name for similar reasons. Everything he makes is a cheap, theme park version of the real thing. But for some reason, the artifice that turned me off those is the exact thing that I assumed would be charming when filtered through a French movie from the 50s. It’s hypocritical I know, but everything that makes me think the new millennium version of the Moulin Rouge is a dodgy knock off, is exactly what made me want to watch 1954’s French Cancan.
Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin) is an ideas man. He has a knack for putting on shows that the early 20th century Parisian taste makers and trend setters love. But there isn’t much money in it. And while he rubs shoulders with the Bourgeoisie, his hit shows make money for his backers, not Henri. When his large living catches up with him and there are bills to pay, Henri dreams up another future hit.
After visiting the strictly working class White Queen night club / pub in a quickly gentrifying area, Henri decides the next big thing in Paris will be a revival of cancan dancing. And it will be lead by the mild mannered young laundress he sees dancing in the White Queen, Nini (Francoise Arnoul). With Nini added to his long serving troupe of performers, including his lover and headlining belly dancer Lola (Maria Felix), Henri calls his financial backers together and begins transforming the White Queen into the latest hit spot of Paris, the Moulin Rouge.
French Cancan opens with a disclaimer, making it very clear that this movie is a work of fiction. None of the characters or situations are based on the founding of the real life Moulin Rouge. And that made me immediately more open to the movie’s bigger, broader, more cartoonish elements. Knowing it wasn’t just embellishing the truth, but going all out with its own fiction, meant I was willing for disbelief to be suspended to a more extreme degree. Which made this movie a whole lot of singing and dancing fun.
But the real surprise was the movie’s liberal attitude to sex and feminism. Well, maybe it was only a surprise because I was raised on American and English cinema, which are notoriously repressed and conservative when it comes to sex. But it’s weird to see a movie of this vintage, where the female lead is able to sleep with several men, and is never judged for it. If this movie was made in America now, it would still be seen as an anomaly. But in France, even in 1954, it was all systems go. And it’s seeing these kinds of different attitudes that make my plan to watch a hundred or so foreign language films in 2016 is a good thing.