August 29, 2017
The Golden Coach (1953) begins with a red curtain raising on a stage, the camera pushing in until the edges of the theater disappear and the story proper begins. Jean Renoir’s feature about an Italian theatrical troupe setting up shop in Peru foregrounds its artificiality, a play within the film that is a performance for our benefit. Near the end the troupe’s star actress asks, “where does theater end and life begin?” a question Renoir had been asking since his beginnings in cinema. It is a question without an answer, but indicates the space in which Renoir prefers to operate, within that intersection where playfulness and improvisation meet the social structures that try to contain them. The Golden Coach focuses on Camilla (Anna Magnani), a dynamic stage presence who bewitches three of Peru’s most eligible bachelors, but cannot decide who she ultimately desires. She can only find clarity while on stage, and heartache off of it. So in an extraordinary conclusion, the film makes an argument for perpetual performance, instead of turning your life into art, make art of your life, regardless of the consequences.
Following the completion and success of The River (1951), which I wrote about here, Renoir was eager to get another project off the ground, preferably one where he could do a similar job of location shooting. After many starts and stops, including a drawn-out pre-production on a never made adaptation of Camus’s The Stranger, he received an offer from producer Robert Dorfmann, with a project ready to shoot. It was an adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s Carrosse Saint-Sacrement, which had been in development with Luchino Visconti, who had left after arguments over the script. Anna Magnani had already been cast in the leading role and production money had been lined up, so Renoir agreed, with the understanding it would be shot in dual French and English versions, and have some location shooting performed in Italy and Mexico. After some reshuffling of the budget, it turned out it would only be shot in English, which Magnani could only speak phonetically, and it would be shot entirely in studio.
Renoir reluctantly adapted to the lessened circumstances, and it’s quite possible having more authentic locales would have worked against the film’s ode to artificiality. But though it worked out artistically, the director complained mightily beforehand, and was also struggling with a wound in his leg that had become infected. This delayed shooting for months, and in the meantime he had growing doubts about his star, writing to producer Prince Francesco Alliata that (as quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau), “In my discussions with her, I’ve had the impression that Anna didn’t understand my screenplay. Moreover, she has had so much work that she wasn’t able to work seriously on her English. That represents such a handicap that I feel discouraged about it already.” But despite all of these pains, worries, and concerns, filming “made him forget his weariness and fatigue, and then he would display a staggering amount of energy, carried away as he was by the pleasure of making films, the enthusiasm of those around him, and his confidence in the film he was making.”
Renoir’s treatment of the Merimee play is very fanciful – the play takes place entirely in a Viceroy’s office and runs barely over an hour. Renoir pushed it more in the direction of the burlesque libretto by Meilhac and Halevy, from which came Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera La Perichole. The story concerns a troupe of Italian actors who are traveling to the New World, landing in Peru to put on some shows. Their lead actress is Camilla (Anna Magnani), a magnetic performer who draws men’s attentions regardless of their station. Spanish officer Felipe (Paul Campbell) had followed her from Europe, making the journey along with a garish golden coach. The coach is intended for Viceroy Ferdinand (Duncan Lamont), who hopes to deploy it as a symbol of Spanish power. But instead it becomes a pawn in his affections for Camilla, after he sees her bewitching performance in the palace. And finally there is the local top toreador named Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a handsome brute who charms with his straightforward style. Camilla juggles the three men around until they are all ready to snap. The Viceroy is close to getting usurped by an aghast clergy, newly spiritual Felipe wants her to run away to India and Ramon simply wants to manhandle her. But Camilla cannot choose, they each offer her varied parts for her to play, so instead they engage in an increasingly frenetic farce in which she keeps stashing men in different rooms until they stumble upon each other and erupt in jealous swordfights. Camilla will either have to choose a man to settle down with or just stay true to her inauthentic self and continue to perform for everyone.
The closing sequences are a tour de force for Magnani, who overcame all of Renoir’s fears. Though not fluent in English, she managed to speak it well phonetically (as she did in Bellissima, 1951), and at 44 years of age is more than enough woman for all of the male actors of the film combined. In the final sequence she first plays a willowy pushover to flatter Ramon’s battering ram approach, then a sensitive artist to inflame Felipe’s Indian awakening (“They are better than us”) and finally a calculating manipulator with the Viceroy, trying to flirt him into a fight. But despite all her best efforts, the men discover her ruse and leave disconsolately, desolately aware none of them will be enough for her. Her one final trick is to appear as a religious penitent, donating the titular golden coach to the church to help the Viceroy out of a scrape. Camilla doesn’t seem to have a true self, but Renoir suggests that that is her glory – an acceptance of inauthenticity allows for more freedom, not less. In the final scene the troupe leader calls Camilla to the front of the stage, as she is saying goodbye to reality and returning to the theater:
Don’t waste your time in the so-called real-life. You belong to us, the actors, acrobats, mimes, clowns, mountebanks. Your only way to find happiness is on any stage, any platform, any public place, during those two little hours when you become another person, your true self.
Camilla says the names of those she has lost: Felipe, Ramon, the Viceroy. They have disappeared, become part of the audience. Does she miss them, the troupe leader asks? Magnani looks straight into the camera, and with a look of Mona Lisa-like inscrutability softly says, “a little.” It is one of the great line readings, encompassing the bone-deep sadness of abandoning her multiple loves as well as expressing the immense power she possesses by standing center stage ready to take on her next role.
This is the fourteenth and final part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.
Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
La Chienne (1931)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
La Bete Humaine (1938)
La Marseillaise (1938)
The Southerner (1945)
The River (1951)
Elena and Her Men (1956)
Picnic on the Grass (1959)