His family lineage is impressive (just check out that last name) but unless you were a film student or an unabashed cinephile, few knew of the magnificent movies made by Jean Renoir. Though his name now resides near the top of many Best of lists, it took decades of critical praise and art house revivals to get this magnificent moviemaker the due he so richly deserved. His Hollywood efforts (he came to the US during the height of the Nazi occupation of France) are seen as slight when compared to his native narratives, yet even those films are divided into pre- and post-war classifications. Residing near the end of his initial phase, La Bęte Humaine was Renoir's most successful film, from a purely mainstream standpoint. Though it really can't match the masterpieces he made before, or would make later on, it is still a fascinating film, one made even more memorable by Criterion's perfected presentation. Forgive its narrative flaws however since this is one incredible motion picture.
Lantier is an engineer for the French rail system, running his reliable locomotive from Paris to Le Havre. He is a sad, solitary man who is more in love with his train than his life. He has had a difficult existence, made even more impossible by a hereditary "illness" that causes uncontrollable rages and aggressive, anti-social behavior. Though he has it under control for now, the ailment can still strike at any time. While traveling back from a visit to his godmother, he sees Stationmaster Roubaud and his wife Séverine sneaking around in the corridor. The next thing he knows, the police are questioning him about the murder of a well-off tycoon...and wondering if he saw anything "suspicious" that evening. He feigns ignorance, and later begins to see Séverine on the sly, confessing that he DID see her that night.
He also makes another confession. He loves her. Initially taken aback, she soon warms to his advances. Eventually, the guilt of their crime grows too great for the Roubauds and they begin to quarrel. Séverine wants to leave, but she can see only one way out. She wants Lantier to attack her husband and kill him. Using the potential crime as a test of their love, the Stationmaster's wife pushes for the deed to be done as soon as possible. But even though he's unsettled inside, Lantier can't bring himself to do it. He wants to deny his inner compulsion. He doesn't want to become La Bęte Humaine that his genetics fate him to be. But as it turns out, he may have no choice.
Though it is based on a novel written in 1890 by famed French naturalist Emile Zola, Jean Renoir's 1938 interpretation of La Bęte Humaine ("The Human Beast") is a startlingly modern movie. Indeed, once you've read the plot and understand the dynamic at play, you can see a dozen similar storylines evolving among the notable noir classics of the 40s and 50s. There's the flawed loner (locomotive engineer Jean Gabin), the wily, deceptively innocent woman (the Stationmaster's wife Simone Simon) and a hardheaded husband (Stationmaster Fernand Ledoux) who is easily manipulated and/or an obstacle to unbridled passion. Toss in numerous ancillary sins - affairs, mental impairment, uncontrollable rages, long hidden family secrets - and you have the makings of a typical taut genre thriller. But in the hands of the magnificent Renoir (who was one year away from making what many consider his masterpiece, 1939's The Rules of the Game), La Bęte Humaine becomes more than just a sensational potboiler. Applying his artistic intuition into this simple story, the director creates a commentary on the cosmopolitan vs. the country, modernization vs. simplification, and the clockwork tenets of the railroad vs. the out of control issues of love.
Thanks to the gorgeous monochrome cinematography, Renoir gives us these contrasts in immediate, undeniable strokes. The first few minutes of the film are like a trainspotter's dream come true. Renoir takes us along for the ride between Paris and Le Havre, and as coal is shoveled and steam escapes, we feel as if we are on a strange sort of emotional time machine, racing forward toward an unknown fate which we can only guess and gawk at. Then we get our first few sequences of dialogue and the situation becomes obvious. Gabin's Lantier is man haunted by his past and lost in his present. He visits his godmother, and discovers that her daughter has developed into a mature beauty. As he tries to strong-arm her with a very sloppy seduction, a strange compulsion comes over him. Where once he was kissing her, now he is strangling her. Regaining his senses, Lantier lets us in on his little secret - he suffers from a kind of brain disorder (which he blames on his alcoholism-laced heredity) and is overcome by uncontrollable, primal urges. Thus we have the fatal flaw that will guide our tragic hero through the rest of the film. Indeed, the way Renoir sets it up in these first few scenes, you come to expect Gabin to be falling about in fits throughout the film. But the key to understanding this sort of kismet conceit is WHEN it happens. We will not see Lantier suffer so until much later - and when it happens then, it's a decisive, defining moment.
As the other condemned counterpart to this triangle, Simone Simon is magical as the vile vamp with destruction on her mind. She never once lets us see this inherent evil bubbling inside her, but she trades on her pretty pixie persona to bewilder and bury the men she is with. During the film's first act, Simon has an amazing scene with her Stationmaster husband Ledoux. She has just visited her godfather, a wealthy tycoon with many connections, and her spouse is jealous. He has his doubts about her "it was all innocent" routine, and when a slip of the tongue reveals a long hidden truth, a terrible beating occurs. Yet Simon only simmers, she never strikes back. Realizing that this rage can be used to her advantage, she sets up the first of her murderous ideals. Indeed, all throughout La Bęte Humaine, Simon uses her obvious feminine wiles to work men into a murderous frenzy for her. Instead of dumping them, or simply denying them her favors, Séverine suffers and prays for death - THEIR death. As she takes on a new lover, you can see the unsuspecting stud being manipulated from concubine to killer. It's the most illusory and satisfying facet of this film. At first, you don't believe she is so wicked. But along the way, as her charms turn corrosive, you realize that the girl you've been sympathizing with has taken you along for the exploited ride as well.
Indeed, a lot of La Bęte Humaine feels like a slowly twisting vice. We see the players in preparation, and then watch as Renoir slowly starts to turn the screws. As the individual elements of the story - the characters, their concerns, and their compulsions - begin to twist up to a tight, tense point, we await the inevitable crime that will condemn them all. But one of the more captivating elements of this film is that it doesn't really end the way we would expect. The standard narrative would give us another body, an unlikely murderer and the depressing resolve that all is not fair in love or war. Yet when that deadly denouement arrives, it comes as a substantial shock. Not that we couldn't have predicted it (and some will). It's just that, Renoir was leading us down one particular path for so long, that we he takes this way out, the surprise of it takes us aback. This is typical of Renoir's skill as a filmmaker. He is truly one of the greatest cinematic artists of all time and La Bęte Humaine is a stunning example of his skill.
This is a brilliantly directed film. The train footage is some of the most spellbinding you will ever see. Renoir, with the help of the French train system, got permission to shoot on an actual locomotive, and the imagery he obtained of the mechanized behemoth screeching across the countryside, its complex collection of gears and valves forcing the actors into a kind of backbreaking ballet, is astounding. Along with his control of actors (Gabin and Simon are great) and his undeniable skill at finding the emotional core of even the most seemingly meaningless scene (a rail employee dance takes on sad, sinister overtones) turns a standard story into something special. La Bęte Humaine may have its undeniably dated ideals (the whole blasé notion of an older man/younger woman relationship screams of a gladly bygone era) but the overall narrative is steeped in ideas that transcend time to speak to the primal desires between individuals in love - or just lust - with each other. Though it plays like a minor piece in Renoir's overall oeuvre, it is still an amazing work of aesthetic excellence.
Offering one of the most startling, near pristine transfers in their entire catalog, Criterion creates a pure black and white masterpiece for their release of La Bęte Humaine. This movie is mesmerizing to look at; the monochrome imagery as striking as the day is was created. There are a few moments when the image ages and washes out in a series of less-than-stellar shots, but for the most part, you would swear this film was created yesterday, not seven decades ago. Of all the digital dark and light dynamics created by this amazing film factory, Renoir's railroad thriller is one of their spellbinding best.
The recording technology of 1938 was extremely limited, so it's no big surprise that the aural elements offered by La Bęte Humaine are rather thin and lifeless. There is lots of distortion here, as well as moments where the soundtrack is muddled and overcrowded. Thankfully, the dialogue is easily decipherable, and the crystal clear subtitles do a nice job of translating the original French. If you can forgive these understandable sonic failings, you'll have no problem enjoying this otherwise excellent motion picture presentation.
Limited yet instructive, the bonus features included on this DVD are fascinating. First off, Renoir explains his inspiration for the film in a typical introduction that greets every Criterion release of his work (they are all taken from a '60s French TV overview of his movies). We even get to see him collaborating with Simon in archival footage. There are also interviews with the director and Zola scholar Henri Mitterand discussing the adaptation process. Along with a trailer, a gallery of onset photos and theatrical posters, as well as a massive booklet featuring material by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, film scholar Ginette Vincendeau and production designer Eugene Lourie, you have a decent selection of added content. By far the best supplementary element though is a 2004 interview with director Peter Bogdanovich. As a student of Renoir, the director has some decidedly insightful things to say about this film, and the filmmaker in general. Thoughtful, provocative and somewhat swaggering at times, Bogdanovich addresses many of the issues raised in the film, and gives us a nice contextual discussion of La Bęte Humaine's place in the Renoir canon.
There is one constant in La Bęte Humaine's imagery, a composition that clearly indicates a connection between the particular parties involved. All throughout the movie, once Lantier and Séverine are together, Renoir shoots them in tight medium shots, the couple grappling with each other in a kind of sensual death grip. It's an expression of love, yet it can also be viewed as an equal indication of need. Both of these rather directionless people would obviously be lost without the other to cling to. Such an embrace will come back to haunt them in the end, since it will evoke anger and rage, not passion and presence, the final time they fall into it. For reasons such as these, and many magnificent others, La Bęte Humaine deserves all the acclaim it receives. It is a Highly Recommended offering from the Criterion Collection, who proves with this release that no one betters their beautiful black and white transfer. While the story may remind you of other noir offerings, there is one thing that separates this film from all the others. It was helmed by one of the legitimate masters of the cinematic artform. In the hands of Jean Renoir, even the most basic story can turn powerful and poetic. This is his great gift. This is La Bęte Humaine at its core.
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