Upon returning to Europe after spending WWII as a Hollywood exile, where he had turned out studio product ranging from the sublime (The Southerner) to the not-quite-ridiculous (Woman on the Beach, which suffered more from studio interference, by all accounts, than the director’s creative vision), Jean Renoir went to Italy to fashion this extravagant, luscious Technicolor paean to the nomadic life of a commedia dell’arte troupe who travel to the New World in order to entertain the residents of a nameless Spanish colonial possession. Set in the early 18th century, Renoir sets the action to the contemporaneous music of Antonio Vivaldi, adapting the film’s tonal and editing rhythms to the composer’s Baroque modalities.
The Golden Coach opens with a long-shot of a proscenium arch swathed in red velvet curtains, which presently draw aside, revealing as a stage set the viceroy’s manor where the majority of the action takes place, then the camera slowly tracks in and the scene begins. Thus, from its first moments, Renoir’s film abolishes any pretense to realism–poetic or otherwise–instead embracing a self-reflexive, celebratory attitude toward all things thespian. Lest you imagine the film will feel stage-bound, Renoir quickly cuts to an exterior shot through a window–the startling blue sky and grungy, washed-out buildings have the feel of a studio set, certainly, but one is reminded more of early Sergio Leone than a stuffy drawing-room drama.
Never content to fashion a typical love triangle, Renoir involves Camilla (Anna Magnani), the troupe’s lead actress, in an erotic rhombus: her triumvirate of suitors are a machismo-mad matador, the young Italian suitor who accompanied her on the transatlantic voyage (during which the eponymous conveyance doubled as boudoir) and the Spanish viceroy (Duncan Lamont, later a regular in Hammer horror films) who starts off slumming backstage and ends up falling prey to Camilla’s charms.
But–as is also the case with the director’s subsequent French Cancan (1955)–romantic intrigue takes a backseat to the representation of performance. Or (to coin a phrase): “The play’s the thing.” Renoir uses the economic conditions, often amounting to banknote blackmail, underlying the creation of artistic spectacle to express his own feelings about the financial end of filmmaking. In The Golden Coach, the ersatz impresario (William C. Tubbs) responsible for bringing the actors to South America forces them to rebuild his decrepit theater, then holds them in arrears for his expenses, foisting a year-long indenture on them.
Ultimately, and this traces back to the 1829 Prosper Mérimée source play, Camilla manages an end-run around male possessiveness by donating the golden coach to the Catholic Church, with the stipulation that it be used to deliver Last Rites to dying congregants. In the film’s restored ending (on the Criterion DVD the scene is clearly from different source stock, fuzzy but watchable), the troupe’s master of ceremonies, Don Antonio, brings Camilla back out onstage to take a red velvet curtain-call, thereby eliminating any naturalistic, conventional resolution. Don Antonio inquires whether or not she misses her suite of suitors (and, consequently, that whole existence founded on illusion), to which she responds hesitatingly, “A little…”
The show, it’s true, must go on–but Renoir succinctly, and touchingly, captures that wisp of nostalgia attendant upon forsaking the known and the finished for the uncharted waters of the next new thing.