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.
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.
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.