Late in his career, after scandal greeted his 1939 masterpiece The Rules Of The Game and the war that followed led to a long exile in Hollywood, director Jean Renoir indulged his love of the theater in an early- to mid-'50s trilogy that belied any real-life hardships. As if invigorated by the escapist spirit of American studio productions, Renoir trained the impressionist eye of his painter father Pierre-Auguste on a run of Technicolor delights, each a triumph of artifice over reality. When viewed in rapid succession on Criterion's "Stage & Spectacle" box set, 1953's The Golden Coach, 1955's French Cancan, and 1956's Elena And Her Men are exhausting in their caffeinated zeal. Bursting with bright colors, ornately decorated period sets, and the constant clamor of scurrying theatrical troupes and passionate love triangles, the films are so awash with activity that their delights threaten a kind of jubilant overload. But Renoir, always the dogged humanist, tempers the sugar rush with deeper undercurrents of politics and feeling, suggesting that there's more to an artist's life than distraction and surface beauty.
Opening with a curtain rising over a proscenium arch, The Golden Coach introduces Renoir's unintended trilogy as a play-within-a-play, announcing the two-dimensional theatricality that courses through each production. All three films are foremost a tribute to their respective stars, none of whom is more boisterous than Italian actress Anna Magnani (Open City), whose full-barreled performance as a traveling stage comedienne gives the movie a powerful fulcrum. Set in an 18th-century Peruvian town ruled by arrogant viceroy Duncan Lamont, the film stars Magnani as the lead attraction in a touring commedia dell'arte troupe from Italy. While the snootier royals dismiss the show for its vulgarity, the viceroy takes such a liking to Magnani that he offers her a luxuriant imported coach—a shocking gesture that sparks cries for his deposition. Though Magnani is pursued by two other thunderstruck men, who are willing to draw swords for the prize, her real choice is between life and the theater, which in Renoir's world isn't much of a contest.
Affairs of the heart have an almost slapstick rhythm in French Cancan, which piles two love triangles on top of each other with a bawdy musicality that's perfectly apropos for a movie about the opening of the notorious Moulin Rouge. Though Baz Luhrmann tossed the same event into a pop-cultural blender for 2001's Moulin Rouge, both films share a go-for-broke sensuality in form and spirit that's eye-catching and invigoratingly naughty. Working again with The Grand Illusion star Jean Gabin, Renoir puts the distinguished gentleman in the middle of a catfight between his two lovers, an Egyptian belly-dancer (María Félix) and a humble laundry-girl-turned-dancer (Françoise Arnoul) with legs to launch a thousand ships. Of the three films in the box set, French Cancan was the only hit, and with good cause: Renoir treats his Moulin Rouge with the sustained delirium it deserves.
In the introduction to Elena And Her Men on the DVD set—which also features intros by Martin Scorsese (on The Golden Coach), Peter Bogdanovich (on French Cancan), and a three-part Renoir interview with Jacques Rivette—Renoir says he made the film for one reason only: Ingrid Bergman. Too bad he didn't have other reasons, as well, because Bergman's signature elegance remains the only enduring element of Renoir's light-hearted confection, which reworks The Rules Of The Game into an airy bedroom farce. Love and politics collide when Bergman, a Polish princess, attracts a French general (Jean Marais) and other conspirators who wish to use their relationship to incite a coup d'état and install the general as dictator. As Christopher Faulkner writes in his liner notes, the end of the film is really a "coup de théâtre," which neatly brings the trilogy full circle: The question of where the theater ends and life begins, posed by Magnani in The Golden Coach, dissolves under Renoir's lens.