The three color films that mark Jean Renoir's return to Europe might be surprising compared to his classics 30's films like RULES OF THE GAME, LA BETE HUMAINE, TONI or GRAND ILLUSION, with which Renoir became prominent as a master of realism. For instance, always preferring to shoot on location rather than in studio environments (TONI was one of the first major sound motion picture to be entrely shot on location with direct sound recording; a revolution at the time).
THE GOLDEN COACH, FRENCH CANCAN and ELENA AND HER MEN are deliberately artificial, stylized, and burlesque. Note for instance the framings in THE GOLDEN COACH, in which Claude Renoir's camera is consciously and carefully placed to achieve symmetrical compositions. In comparison to the moving camera techniques of GRAND ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME that allowed him to capture the actions without missing the many crucial details in one, continuous long take, these three films (especially COACH and ELENA) may look very static. The acting style is also very much over the top.
One of the supplements, the Jacques Rivette's interview, in which Renoir repeatingly insists that "truth" or "reality" can be only achieved through artifice and artifacts of the artistic medium, is extremely revealing about Renoir's changing his style, and that though the apparent style has changed, his philosophy about filmmaking is remarkably consistent.
These three films are also created as comedies, though the contents are some of the most serious themes treated in cinema, and have a lot to do with cinema itself as a performing/representational art form. For each of the three films is profound analysis about performing in human life. FRENCH CANCAN is about the nature of performers, and the difficulties of that profession. THE GOLDEN COACH and ELENA AND HER MEN are, among other things, political farces, based on the extremely cynical idea that politics are nothing else but a matter of performance. Arguably, only Renoir could depict those themes as light-hearted comedies.
Some notes should be made on the transfers of this new DVD edition. ELENA was shot with Eastmancolor film stock (one strip negative), and the transfer is created from the original negative. Excepts for optically-treated segments (dissolves and fade outs, fade ins) which show severe color fading, the DVD represents very much what the film should look like. And those color fadings are practically impossible to fix with today's technology.
THE GOLDEN COACH and FRENCH CANCAN were originally shot with 3-strips Technicolor cameras. This system requires 3 B/W negatives running simultaneously, each of them recording one primary color. So it is impossible to just scan the original negatives to get the most faithful images. The DVD transfers for these 2 films are created from interpositives. For FRENCH CANCAN, it seems that a vintage dye-transfer print was used, and though it shows certain damages caused by age, the DVD represents faithfully the texture and details such as the material quality of the clothings that can be only captured on a dye-transfer Technicolor print, as well as the rather pale, pastel-like color palette that Renoir and art director Max Douy intended to depict the period: the story takes place in the heights of impressionism paintings.
For THE GOLDEN COACH, the print used for the transfer is probably from the restoration and re-release in the early 90's (Martin Scorsese financed the American distribution; hence his introduction on the DVD). This restoration was important since before that, the film was virtually invisible, but nevertheless not a perfect one technically speaking. It does not have the richness of color of a dye-transfer Technicolor prints, particularly the reds and the blacks suffer a lot. Plus, certain shots, especially the extremely moving and revealing epilogue in which Renoir confesses through Camilla-Anna Magnani the sadness of working in performing arts, suffer a lot from the different shrinkage of each color-separation negatives. The colors are nearly dead, and they look out of focus. It's a pity that unlike the American studio's Technicolor classics with which a lot of financial and technical efforts are constantly made to put them back into shape, THE GOLDEN COACH, one of the greatest masterpieces of this color-format, is not yet properly restored.
Criterion has already put GRAND ILLUSION and RULES OF THE GAME on market with beautiful DVD editions. Now, watching this new DVD sets, and especially watching the supplement BBC documentary about Renoir's career after the 40's, I must say that now they have to publish Renoir's first color film THE RIVER, which is one of the less-known masterpiece of Renoir's as well as a key film for the evolution of his style, on a DVD edition as accomplished as these.