French Cancan is perhaps the greatest backstage movie ever made. Jean Gabin plays a stage impresario of the 1880s (surely a stand-in for Renoir himself), hatching a plan to revive the naughty can-can and school a young ingenue (Francoise Arnoul) in the rigors of art and life. With 1956's Elena and Her Men, Renoir relies on the effortless beauty of Ingrid Bergman, as a Polish princess juggling devotees (including Jean Marais as a smitten general, for whom love trumps politics every time). While not a woman of the theater, Elena understands the value of putting on a show.
The Criterion box is an authoritative pleasure (including the pretty packaging), featuring best-possible visual transfers. Excellent archival introductions to Elena and Golden Coach are delivered by Renoir himself, shot sometime in the 1960s; Peter Bogdanovich provides a solid 10-minute talk on Cancan. A one-hour-plus, three-part Renoir interview, conducted by New Wave filmmaker-critic Jacques Rivette, is spread across all three discs; Renoir is in fascinating, aphoristic form ("Intelligence is terrible. It makes us do stupid things"). Part of an informative BBC documentary, Jean Renoir: Hollywood and Beyond, is bundled with Elena. Essays by the likes of Andrew Sarris and Jonathan Rosenbaum provide context for Renoir's celebratory but unsparing look at the intersection of Art and Life. --Robert Horton