(1938) dir. Jean Renoir
As I noted about a year ago when I watched Jean Renoir’s The Lower Depths (1936), I’d had an introduction to Renoir when I had been living in England, but since that time I haven’t really seen any of his films. La bête humaine is actually not entirely different from The Lower Depths in that it’s a literary adaptation, this time Emile Zola not Maxim Gorky, and also one with some change of setting. In this case, the story is modernized a bit, which was a choice for production costs, according to some of the extras on the Criterion Collection disc.
La bête humaine plays out a bit like film noir though film noir wasn’t to come for another decade almost (though there are debates about its origin if such a thing can be clearly defined). A humanistic approach to the story of love and murder among the working class, the films stars Jean Gabin and Simone Simon, the doomed lovers of this tale.
The cinematography is quite striking, set amongst the world of steam trains and the engineers and other workers in this world. The film opens, interestingly, with no dialogue, but with the images of the train, the work that it takes the men to make the train run, and the physicality of the entire milieu. Apparently, Gabin learned to run the trains himself, and there was much put into the verity of the work situations, the realit of the work and effort, not simply into the characters’ personas.
Always interested in class, Renoir here is actually much more situated within a single class, not demonstrating many characters from othere walks of society, with the key example of the corrupt godfather of Simon’s character, who was a womanizer and user of women, using even his relationship with Simon as her godfather to have an affair with her until he’d tired of her. He meets a ruinous end, but at the hands of Simon’s jealous, small-minded husband, not purely for moral flaws.
Simone Simon, who I’d only ever seen in Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), is a lovely woman, yet again a victim. Though in this case, she’s a victim of the strange, psychological urges of a man possessed of the blood poisoned by the sins of his forebears.
A great film, truly. Renoir was a humanist above all and a great teller of story. All is apparent here in this film.