1954's French Cancan, Jean Renoir's triumphant return to his native France after a generally unhappy spell in Hollywood proves surprisingly upbeat, indeed celebratory, for what is, in narrative terms, a tale of showbiz (mis)appropriation and, in terms of its sexual politics, little less than shameful. The rediscovery of the cancan as a brash, knicker-flashing cashcow is put across in full, unrestrained teeth-and-tits fashion; practically the only thing missing is the exclamation point Baz Luhrmann addended to the title of his Moulin Rouge!
Jean Gabin is Danglard, the Simon Cowell of his day: a cynical impresario whose fortune derives from his latest nightclub sensation, named (with a phony exoticism worthy of the act itself) "The Chinese Screen". From the way Danglard looks listlessly at his favourite "choreographer" Maria Felix's remarkable décolletage, or summarily dismisses those wannabes who come in to do a turn for him, we can spy that this man is a spent force, jaded, dangling, indeed; yet his interest (and other things) will come to be piqued by Nini (Françoise Arnoul), the laundry girl he meets in a dive bar one night. Smitten by her charms, the impresario feels compelled to construct not just a stage show, but an entire edifice around her high-kicking, although his motives prove rather less pure than those of Nini's other suitors: a baker boy (Franco Pasterino) so sensitive he weeps after the pair have made love among the baguettes, and the moneyed Prince (Gianni Esposito) who becomes a fan after seeing Nini twirl.
In Danglard's scheming, we see the birth of a whole culture of middlebrow slumming: the Nini show promises, in his words, "adventure with comfort... the bourgeois will mix with skirt, without pox or knifing" - in other words, the kind of "journey" that would eventually allow millions every week to sneer from their sofas at those being humiliated on TV talent shows. Renoir is admirably honest in showing how this dubious vision was cobbled together: at the cancan auditions, one old dear (tellingly named Prunelle) does the splits, but can't get back up again (you can almost see Ant and Dec sniggering in the wings); another, younger participant has the requisite legkicks, but lacks sexiness; conversely, an artist's model brings the frilly knickers, but not the moves. Only Nini, the complete package, has the X factor; everything else has to be constructed around her. Covering his tracks, Danglard has the dive bar blown up, and so the White Queen gives way to the altogether phallic Moulin Rouge, neither the first, nor the last, erection he will consecrate to his protégée: sexuality is about to become grist to the Mill.
The most disarming thing about French Cancan is that - even before we get to the knicker-flashing (presented as, in its own way, as transgressive and scandalising as "The Rite of Spring") - it remains a sexy, vibrant film, shot full of that easy sensuality the French do so well. With that, you have to accept the idea of an older man lusting after a woman around a third his age: for the diminutive Nini, we might substitute Gigi, or Loli(ta), as the painterly image of Arnoul curled up in post-coital bliss is comprehensively sullied by Gabin devouring her neck first, as he does a croissant in a subsequent scene - a sight as generally appealing as imagining the Cowell getting it on with Leona Lewis.
Renoir presumably knew full well how to film sex, but it's possible he had to go to America to make it sell, and the film is very nearly as unapologetically gaudy as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls on the commodification of sexual response that sits close to its centre. Danglard has a fantastically self-serving speech towards the end that boils down to an insistence that fucking starlets is vital to the creation of his art, the none-too-subtle implication being that only he had the capacity, the sheer heft, to have made his girls this morally and physically flexible. (Hustling them out on stage for the big finale, he himself retires to his backstage throne to puff on a big fat cigar: job done.)
It should, by rights, be a hateful experience - an apologia for every last act of directorial abuse committed in the name of Art - but Renoir is forgiving and open-handed to a fault, noting the arrival of the Prince to the narrative with the same laissez-faire he's earlier observed beggars and street entertainers and, in doing so, giving himself and his characters places to go. When the Moulin Rouge's ground-breaking ceremony turns into an undignified brawl that ends with someone being pushed into a ditch (even before its inauguration, this was entertainment for rabbles), the camera can simply turn away to a band dutifully striking up an official-sounding anthem.
The advantage of the approach is the sheer life Renoir gets into the background of these sets: the dancers poking their heads round dressing-room doors mid-quarrel, or washing themselves in the accepted, nude-from-behind style, a dog that briefly wanders on to stare at the camera. Like Danglard, Renoir is unafraid to toss on anything that might secure a full house: period paintings and posters, an Edith Piaf number, extracts from popular turns of the day, sparked by a montage in which Nini is schooled in stagecraft, even the Frenchiest subtitle of all time ("Don't take the Camembert again"). In every given scene, anything goes, which results in a film a lot less stagey and severe than it might have been: indeed, with its gorgeous, pastel-hued craft granted renewed effervescence by this digital restoration, it remains a simple (if not entirely uncomplicated) pleasure, a knees-up, a jouissance.
French Cancan opens in selected cinemas from Friday.