The Golden Coach (Kino Lorber, NR)

Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952) is a prime example of a film that seemed to have everything going for it yet just didn’t connect with audiences in its day. It had a big-name director (Renoir’s other films include The Grand Illusion (1937), The Rules of the Game (1939), and The River (1951)), an international star for a leading lady (Anna Magnani, then best known for playing Pina in Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Rome, Open City) excellent production values (it was shot in technicolor by Claude Renoir, nephew of Jean, at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios), and an international cast. It was even released in three languages (English, French, and Italian), yet managed to flop in all three.

Even in its own day, The Golden Coach did have its admirers, including some notable directors: François Truffaut called it “the noblest and most refined film ever made” while Eric Rohmer called it “the ‘open sesame’ of all Renoir’s work.” Watching it today, I can see both points of view: it wasn’t what most people were looking for from a night at the movies in 1952, yet it’s a perfectly wonderful film if you take it on its own terms.

The story of The Golden Coach comes from a play by Prosper Mérimée (the man who also gave us the story of Carmen), with five writers credited for the screenplay. The coach of the title is the hottest things on four wheels in the small Spanish colonial town in Peru where the action takes place, and it functions like a Chekhov’s gun in that you can be sure it will play a key role in the working out of the plot. The same could be said of another coincidence—the ship that brought the coach also carries an Italian commedia dell’arte troupe led by Don Antonio (Odoardo Spadaro) and featuring Camilla (Anna Magnani), as well as a bullfighter named Ramon (Riccardo Rioli)—this is the kind of well-made plot in which coincidences are never accidental and the fun is in watching how they play out.  

Camilla, a great beauty, does not suffer for lack of male attention. One admirer, Felipe (Paul Campbell), wants her to settle with him in the Peruvian countryside. The  Viceroy, a.k.a. the local colonial ruler (Duncan Lamont), gives her an expensive necklace and promises her the coach as well. No shrinking violet, Camilla takes a fancy to Ramon and gives him the necklace, so he and Felipe have to have a fight (with swords, of course). Meanwhile, the Viceroy has been threatened with removal from his post due to his extravagance (with some sexual jealousy mixed in as well), and a bishop (Jean Debucourt) is due to arrive soon to try to straighten it all out (because the Catholic Church was essentially the ruling power in the Spanish colonies at this time). Whatever will become of that coach?

I suspect the deliberate staginess of The Golden Coach turned off contemporary audiences. Renoir signals his intent immediately, as the title credits are presented over an image of a classic red-and-gold theater curtain and the film proper opens onto a proscenium stage. The acting performances are quite presentational as well, and full of the kind of business typical of a grand opera, which may have seemed bizarre to audiences only familiar with the Hollywood naturalistic style. That needn’t bother anyone today, of course, and as a fan of both plays and opera on screen, I had no problem understanding what Renoir was doing and why.  

The soundtrack uses the music of the always reliable Antonio Vivaldi (did he ever set a foot wrong?) and the technical elements are splendid but largely non-naturalistic, similar to what you might see in one of the Metropolitan Opera’s more traditional stagings of a classic work. The work of production designer Mario Chiari, set decorator Gino Brosi, and costume designer Maria De Matteis is first-rate, the performances by the commedia dell’arte troupe are charmingly amateurish, and everyone you see on screen understands what kind of a movie they are in. The only sour notes, to a modern viewer, is the way the “natives” (indigenous people) are portrayed and the use of blackface within the commedia dell’arte performances, both of which serve as a reminder of how much our expectations have changed since 1952. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Golden Coach is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an alternative audio track in French and an audio commentary track by film critic Adam Nayman.

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