Monday, January 17, 2011

The Golden Coach (1953)

If the theme of 'The Golden Coach' (Le Carrosse d'or) could be summed up in one phrase, it would be that uttered by Anna Magnani as she reflects on her life and situation: "Where is truth? Where does the theatre end and life begin?" This is the question that Jean Renoir wished to explore when he directed 'The Golden Coach,' a sumptuous film loosely based on Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement, a comedic play by Prosper Mérimée. The movie is ostensibly about the love triangle that forms around Camilla (Magnani), the star actress of a comedia dell'arte troupe in a small Peruvian town in the early 19th century. But at its core, it's a method for Renoir to examine the relationship between acting and real life, about performances that we give both on and off the stage.

The movie itself is a work of visual art, a theatrical set piece awash in lurid, garish colors, and the ever-present diamond pattern of the Harlequin. This is intentional, of course; besides wishing to thrill us with color, Renoir wishes to remind us that the movie is about a play within a play. To that end, there are depictions of the troupe at their work, and the tale of Camilla echoes the stories that the mountebanks enact on stage.

What is the difference between the way we conduct ourselves onstage and offstage? Is there a difference? Perhaps. But if so, Renoir wants to stress that the difference is slight, and that we carry on acting even after the glare of the footlights has diminished. Two particular scenes that unfold like triptychs drive this insight home. Witness Camilla, who trots back and forth between three prospective suitors, steeling herself before facing each one, constantly adopting a different face and attitude. Same with the Viceroy, who must dance from Camilla, to his court, to his former, jilted lover, and back again, the camera following him through three separate rooms and three separate external appearances.

Acting is an indelible part of the main characters' existences; they act in the course of their careers, they act while they interact with each other, concealing desires, secrets, and motivations, or pretending to feel some way that they don't, and they act according to the rules of the social game that they all must participate in. And, just like breaking character on stage is shunned, so is breaking character offstage; too, both yield poor outcomes. When the Viceroy forgoes the role foisted upon him by social convention, he finds himself the target of a coup; when Camilla decides to abandon the pretenses that she has adopted and follow her true desires, she finds her life to be much more complicated and nearing chaotic.

Is Renoir trying to make a normative claim about acting, i.e., that we must 'keep up appearances' or consistently play roles throughout our daily interactions, jobs, etc.? I don't think he would make that claim. After all, characters don't get into trouble because they cast aside roles. It is the adoption of the roles in the first place, with all the intrigue, lies, acts, and pretenses that come with it that ends up causing these poor outcomes. Sloughing off an act might result in trouble, but if the characters had been truthful from the start, they wouldn't have found themselves in the situations that they do.  Renoir, it seems, wants to tell us that we are bound to act and play parts in one way or another throughout our existences. But we must be careful with these roles, and be wary about whether a situation calls for an act and how deeply committed we must be to the part. For sooner or later we must step off-stage, and shed our costumes, and put on our true faces - if we can even know what, exactly, that is. 

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