The Golden Coach

As You Like It

Film essay by: Witney Seibold



Jean Renoir is hailed by cinephiles as one of the fathers of modern cinema. In 1937, he made a film called “The Grand Illusion,” a war film that abandoned the usual war clichés of the day (heroes bidding sweethearts farewell, then tragically perishing, or heroically triumphing over the faceless enemy), and opted for a more stark approach, showing that soldiers and war prisoners are not nationalist bozos, but complex human beings with shifting loyalties. In 1939, he made a film called “The Rules of the Game” which is, in most textbooks, considered the first total and successful attempt at a “naturalist” and “realist” drama, which stood in stark adult contrast to the fanciful childish melodramas of the day (1939, it must be remembered, was the heyday of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” and feelgood Frank Capra Americana).

 Jean Renoir has left his mark; He paved the way for the French New Wave a few decades later, is said to have inspired one of his contemporaries, Vittorio De Sica (maker of “The Bicycle Thief” for those of you outside the know), and is one of the driving forces behind the films of contemporary filmmakers like Robert Altman. He is considered a master of a certain brand of realism which was radical and difficult-to-find in his time, he is a pioneer of certain realist storytelling techniques. He was fascinated by the true behavior of humanity, by the honesty of everyday human foibles, by the capability of film to extend past melodrama and into real life. His entire career is full of films like “La Bête Humaine” and “The River,” which all explore the struggle of everyday life and the occasional darkness that escapes from the human soul.           

And then, in 1953, he went way, way off the rails and made “The Golden Coach.”           

“The Golden Coach” seems to have come from a Jean Renoir that no one had met before. True, his love for the theater was well-known, and he did express a desire to work with Italian actress Anna Magnani, but no one could have seen something so light, so joyous, so melodramatic, so based in well-known Commedia Del Arte theater conventions, and so lovingly beautiful to come from Jean Renoir as “The Golden Coach.” It is a boisterous film. It is a colorful film (Renoir rarely worked in color). It is a romantic and fun and funny film. And it is all the more wonderful to be so out-of-character for the filmmaker.             

“The Golden Coach” is not usually mentioned among the great classics. It’s actually pretty obscure, and usually only mentioned as a sidenote in film textbooks that favor “The Rules of the Game” or “The Grand Illusion.” Since it’s so out-of-character for an otherwise revolutionary filmmaker, scholars tend to dismiss at as a self-indulgent trifle, an experiment that Renoir had to do in order to be comfortable with his aging career. It’s one of those really good movies that few people talk about. I feel that “The Golden Coach” is underrated, and that a man’s reality-bending comedy of conventions can be just as valid as his realist dramas. The love and passion in “The Golden Coach” are too powerful to be allowed to sit on a second tier of classics. This is a film that you should see.  But onto the film…            What better place to start with an essay on “The Golden Coach” with the man who Jean Renoir considered to be his primary collaborator: Antonio Vivaldi? Vivaldi pieces were constantly played while Renoir was writing the script for “The Golden Coach” and often, he claims, movements in the music began to shape the arcs of the characters. On the set, he would play Vivaldi in between takes to inspire the actors, and ended up using nothing but Vivaldi pieces for the film’s score.           

I realize few people these days are experts in (and in many cases not even familiar with) the music of Antonio Vivaldi. I’m not going to claim any expertise in the man or his music; I’ve not studied Vivaldi to any degree. I can say, though, that his music is some of the more lively baroque I have heard. He seems less somber than Bach, and not as treacly as Mozart. One can really almost see a rich drama unfolding when one hears Vivaldi.             

So the curtain rises on screen, and we hear Vivaldi boldly announcing the arrival of “The Golden Coach.” The spirit of Vivaldi is what drives the film, the film’s emotions, the film’s melodrama, the sheer joy of seeing what we’re about to see…           

A quick rundown: A curtain rises. It is the mid-18th century, somewhere in Central America. A troupe of traveling actors, led by the charming and temperamental Camilla (Magnani) passes into a small town in order to put on a play. Camilla is having a half-on, half-off affair with the troupe’s manager Felipe (Paul Campbell). The theater is inadequate, but the troupe defiantly fixes the local theater themselves. The local aristocracy, led by the sarcastic and bored viceroy, Ferdinand (Duncan Lamont), are cautiously impressed with the coming of something as exciting as a troupe of actors (acting is hardly noble). Ferdinand is under a lot of heat from the other aristocrats for specially shipping from Europe a large ornate golden coach, which many suspect is an merely particularly expensive toy for the viceroy.

After a successful performance in the renovated theater, the troupe is invited to the local palace to perform for the upper class. Ferdinand forms an instant regard for Camilla, and she, alternately charmed by his self-aware sarcasm and his wealth, soon falls for him. Felipe is angered, and storms off to fight in the local wars. Ferdinand promises Camilla the coach.

When Camilla finally sees that Ferdinand may not serious about many of his promises, ends up being charmed by a local hero, toreador Ramón (Riccardo Rioli). Eventually Camilla ends up having to choose between the three men, all of whom will (inevitably) congregate in the same room, and will end up with none of them. She will insist on taking her right in the golden coach. The coach begins to become a symbol for all the contentiousness and tension in the story, emotional, political, and otherwise.

The epilogue features Camilla stepping out onto the stage, the curtain falls, and she realizes how lucky she is to have been a part of such a wonderful drama, and feels a profound love for the experience of theater.            

Commedia Del Arte and reality           

The genius of “The Golden Coach” lies partly in its unmitigated joy, but mostly in something a bit more profound: the blurring of the lines between performance and reality.

More than just performing it, the traveling players live the Commedia Del Arte. There are small children constantly tumbling about the screen, and characters like Don Antonio (Odoardo Spadaro) seem to have grown so comfortably into their Commedia roles that they can no longer stop doing their lazzi. These are not people who merely act for a living, but perform as a vital part of their beings. Their love for the theater is so profound that the aristocracy, while also playing roles in their everyday jobs of haggling treaties and arguing the necessity of expensive trinkets, cannot begin to understand the necessity of the stage to these people.           

(On a personal note, I was a theater major in college. I wasn’t in too many productions; aside from being on academic probation for failing calculus, I don’t think the school’s directors liked my acting very much. I was, however, long before in high school, bitten by the drama bug, and I would not let these things stand in my way of taking part in theater all I could. So even taking menial grunt jobs backstage, and eventually having to form my own production with friends in order to do any actual acting, gave me an ineffable love for the stage which I don’t think I’ll ever shake. So when Camilla steps out onto the stage at the film’s end, I can feel the love she expresses for the stage. I had it once, and I still have it in me. I think anyone who has ever been a part of any stage production has it. )           

But apart from the characters’ (and by extension, the directors’) love for theater, we are actually given something even more outstanding: a Commedia Del Arte film. Here’s where the levels of reality get a little confusing. The film is presented as a play-within-a-film. In most films, even in the most lurid of film melodramas, the characters are presented as “real” to some degree: they are the main characters, and they exist solidly within their own universe. The characters in “The Golden  Coach” announce that they know their own roles in the drama we are seeing. They are indeed characters caught up in the drama of their universe, but simultaneously, we are seeing actors who know they are in a film, and who announce to the audience how it felt to act, to play, and to be played by the importance of their characters’ drama. By the end, the actor and the character have become inextricably twined.           

Is this how it is for all actors? Probably not. But it has happened to many. That you play a role for so long, and get to know a fictional character so well – get to be a fictional character so well – that you and the character begin to merge onstage into a new symbiotic hybrid of reality and fiction. “The Golden Coach” gives us a fun and joyous melodrama, but also points out how we bland with the parts we play, and reveals, at its core, what it is to change as a human being. “The Golden Coach” uses theater as the catalyst. Surely there are many other catalysts for human change, but the way the film presents it, theater seems to be the one way that is the most affecting, the most loving, the most passionate. One doesn’t need to be involved in theater to feel this. One can hate theater, and still feel it. The color and the joy and the music and the wonderful performances suck us in.  The Characters           

So we have a blustering blowhard in Ramon, a doddering old man in Antonio, a rich funny slimeball in Ferdinand, and a lady torn between lovers in Camilla. They may as well be wearing their masks, ‘cause these are types from the ancient Commedia Del Arte tradition. And yet, since this is film (remember Godard’s truth at 24 fps? See my “Rashomon” essay for more), they are also real people. So we may recognize the broad archetypes and ancient traditions, but we sincerely begin to feel for these people.            

Ferdinand is an interesting character. Duncan Lamont reminds me of Vincent Price a bit. We have a man who, we sense, is using his station and wealth to seduce a poor woman. He is taking advantage of her poverty to romance her. Of course, the cynical desire to possess her eventually becomes real affection. Ferdinand must also keep his romancing of Camilla a secret from his wispy other girlfriend, Irene (Gisella Mathews). He is a scoundrel, but one with a heart, a heart that only beats at the most inappropriate moments. When he is finally confronted by all three of them (in a strangely funny scene of Ferdinand charging through a room from door to door placating each party as he goes), he ends up siding with his own class, denies Camilla her coach, and forwardly alienates Irene.              

This is a very Shakespearean character: The scoundrel who tries to be more than he is (in this case, a lover), and suffers because of it. Coriolanus, Marc Antony, Richard II, Macbeth, and even Hamlet try to be larger than their stations. In Shakespeare, it is always the royalty who try to be more human (more a politician, more a lover, more a penitent, more a killer, more a man of action) who are punished in this way. Renoir sees this, recreates it, and Ferdinand becomes a more dramatically rich character. And he often can see what’s happening to him, thanks to his sarcastic self-awareness, and bitter views of the aristocratic system he is so inextricably a part of.            

Camilla is feisty and fun and passionate at the beginning, so it’s almost a pity, in a way, to see her begin to fall for the man we know to be kind of slimy and dishonest, even though we see his genuine affection later on. This is a woman destined to have her heart broken. She is so full of passion and love for the things around her, that she is willing to love a man with a little self-knowledge and promises of a better life. When she finally demands her coach after ousting Ferdinand, we are not seeing her reduced to grand theft coach in order to have the titular trinket for herself. We are seeing her claim her dignity back. We are seeing her taking charge again. She is hurt, and the least that can be given her is something of significance to the man who jilted her. She loves the coach,, true, and covets it, but more than that, is claiming her humanity.           

“At the end of the second act, when Colombine goes, driven away by her masters, there is a tradition you seem not to know. The comedians bow to her.”           

She will have her moment, be she character, actress, or real human being.            

Ramon, Felipe, Martinez, everyone.

 As You Like It           

 In fact, Shakespeare is everywhere in this film. In the nature of the characters, in the construction of the drama, and in the subtle theatrical self-awareness of the entire production. It uses the conventions of Commedia Del Arte, without actually being a straightforward Commedia Del Arte production.            

Many of the shots in the film have a definite proscenium (the stairway in the palace, the ramshackle theater, the swordfight I Camilla’s house), and we see periodically what a production this all is. Was Renoir merely flexing his theatrical muscles, or are we to see the falseness and the beauty of it all?             

Watch or read Hamlet again sometime, and see that how many times he refers to “playing a part.” Perhaps Hamlet is not merely preoccupied with being a revenger, but with being a traditional Senecan revenge hero in a play he knows he is in. Read Richard III, and note how often Richard talks to the audience about his own role in this royal “drama.”            

And then watch “The Golden Coach,” and see how often this Shakespearean struggle of self is present.              


But I don’t mean for “The Golden Coach” to sound like a turgid tragedy that must be analyzed and suffered through. In fact, there are few times during “The Golden Coach” when I wasn’t smiling. I loved Camilla and her passion and her resolve. I loved the young lovers who fawned over her. I loved the boorishness and shallow comic overconfidence of Ramon. I loved the quiet doddering knowledge of Antonio. I loved the fascinating Ferdinand. I wish I could have seen this film in its two other versions: Jean Renoir shot three versions of this film simultaneously, one in English, one in his native French, and one in Italian. He liked the English version best, however, as Anna Magnani, he says, had a wonderful Italian accent, adding to her character. Jean Renoir went on after “The Golden Coach” to make two other Technicolor spectacle films about the love of theater, “French Cancan,” and “Elena and her Men” with Ingrid Bergman. These three films are totally aberrational for Renoir. I have not seen the other tow as of the writing of this essay, but if “The Golden Coach” is any indicator of their quality, I will get to them as soon as I can.           

See “The Golden Coach,” and feel the love, the lightness, the deepness, the suffering and the joy. See one of the best films about theater. See a multi-layered traditional comedy clashing with the modern style of film. See the glorious change of a master filmmaker. See Vivaldi come to life. And just have a good time, ‘cause there are few films like this one.

Published in: on May 14, 2007 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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