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LA BETE HUMAINE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux, Julien Carette, Blanchette Brunoy
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Jean Renoir introduction, Peter Bogdanovich interview, archival footage, photo gallery, trailer, booklet
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: February 14, 2006

"Please don't be angry with me.  If I get violent, it's because I love you."

Film ****

The Popular Front was an important political movement in France of the 1930's, and on the silver screen, filmmaker Jean Renoir was one of its champions.  Through such early films as 1936's Le crime de Monsieur Lange, Renoir began to establish his reputation as a director who did not shy away from sensitive commentary on class struggles or political upheaval.

For this reason, Renoir seemed a suitable candidate for the film adaptation of the Émile Zola novel La Bęte Humaine (The Human Beast).  The novel was itself part of the author's Rougon-Macquart family saga of inter-related novels.  It provided a sheering portrait of the miseries of the working class in France and may also be interpolated as a crass allegory of a corrupt, bourgeois France of the 1860's, careening along an inevitable path towards destruction (and the disastrous Franco-Prussian War).  Renoir's contemporary film, in hindsight, might evoke similar sentiments, considering that French proletarianism at the time was soon fated to a swift demise at the hands of Germany's Third Reich.

However, contrary to expectations, Renoir saw fit to significantly alter the actual storyline.  Renoir's adaptation was a much less politicized, desperate, and detached work than the novel.  Where the novel chose to comment grandly upon universal themes regarding society and humanity, the film focused more upon the human drama behind the suffering and tribulations of its individual protagonists.  Aside from a brief prologue acknowledging the Zola novels, Renoir's La Bęte Humaine is a stand-alone story about a self-destructive man, doomed by the capriciousness and excesses of his ancestors to a dreary and seemingly pre-ordained fate.  Although Renoir injects some gaiety and frivolity into the story's otherwise somber proceedings, La Bęte Humaine arguably still remains Renoir's darkest film.

One of the novel's premises - that the consequences of alcoholism in generations of the Rougon-Macquart family, like a cancer, have poisoned the protagonist's blood such that he too is fated to emotional outbursts and violence in spite of himself - is pure psychobabble.  Renoir retains this theme in the movie but does so in a way that it becomes a symbol for human fallacy and the inevitability of one's reversion to his bestial instincts in times of intense emotions.  This "human beast" is clearly a reference to the main character, Jacques Lantier, but as a running theme can also be applied to several other in the film, including the stationmaster for the Le Havre rail station.

Renoir's film is also a product of its time, an instance when the poetic realism movement in cinema was at its height.  This lyrical style of filmmaking was quite popular in France during the final pre-war years, and Renoir was among those who adapted well to the romantic stylizations of the genre.  La Bęte Humaine starred Jean Gabin, a legendary star whose laconic yet vulnerable screen persona was perfectly suited to poetic realism.  In fact, Gabin would appear in two classic examples of the French genre in 1938 - Marcel Carné's Port of Shadows and Renoir's La Bęte Humaine.

There is a perhaps-apocryphal anecdote that La Bęte Humaine arose from Gabin's desire to drive a real train.  Gabin's character, Jacques Lantier, is after all a railroad man with a great passion for locomotives.  Furthermore, the film's editorial rhythm resembles the clipped, syncopated cadence of the wheels of a locomotion speeding along the rails.  La Bęte Humaine even opens with a wondrous sequence of a train whirling through the countryside before arriving at the Victorian station in Le Havre.  Blaring with the hiss of coal-driven steam and the rickety beat of locomotive wheels, this dialogue-free montage sequence at once reveals the film's superior craftsmanship, with much more of the same yet to come.

The world of Jacques Lantier is one congested with smoke and soot.  It revels in the grind and pollution of the industrial age, from the velocity of the blurred landscape flying by to the shrills of its locomotive engines and the ceaseless bustle of rail yard laborers.  One can even palpably sense the debauchery of the town's dance halls and the decrepitude of its boardinghouses and canteens.

For Jacques, the only "woman" in his life is his locomotive, affectionately named Lison.  Frequently, the camera will linger quite lovingly over Lison as a man might admire a shapely woman (people with a fetish for steamy mechanical gears and the majestic beauty of design that was the steam locomotive in its heyday will truly enjoy this film).  When a married friend ribs the bachelor Jacques about seeking a wife, Jacques simply replies that he is "already married to Lison.  She's good enough for me."

La Bęte Humaine begins with the arrival of Jacques and his train in Le Havre.  Lison has developed axle problems, and so Jacques must remain in town with his fellow stoker, Pecqueux (Julien Carette), until the necessary repairs are completed.  It is an ill-advised respite.  During his stay, Jacques finally proves unfaithful to Lison as he begins to harbor a secret longing for Séverine (Simone Simon), the vampish young wife of the Le Havre station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux).

The station master himself is normally a decent man.  However, he is too passionate about his wife and frets quite so over the nebulous relationships between Séverine and the various other men in her life.  The suspected libidinous excesses of Roubaud's wife eventually drive him into a wrath fueled by ever-increasing jealousy.  Not without some justification, Roubaud begins to see potential suitors for his own wife's attention everywhere, and his suspicions inevitably include Jacques, too.

As such, Simon's character Séverine is an obvious precursor to Hollywood's archetypal femme fatale.  American audiences may even recognize the demure Simone Simon from her work in a pair of classic Val Lewton horror films, Cat People and Curse of the Cat People.  In fact, when first we see her in La Bęte Humaine, she is fondly stroking a cat!

The dangerous love triangle that develops between Séverine and the two current men in her life,  her husband Roubaud and her suitor Jacques, is the catalyst for the individual tragedies which befall all three to varying degrees by the conclusion of the film.  Renoir seems to be noting that we as humans cannot help ourselves when caught in the throes of intense passion and desire.  We revert to our animalistic instincts, and unfortunately, when such a strong lust is either shunned or not reciprocated, the reaction is usually a violent one.

An aura of seeming fatalism lingers about La Bęte Humaine.  Even the greatest drive for self-preservation does not ensure survival or true happiness for the film's characters.  The unlikely chain of circumstances which bring Jacques, Roubaud, and Séverine together also serves to drive them forever apart.  Love and hatred may seem polar extremes, but as far as La Bęte Humaine is concerned, they are merely reflections of one another, each with an equal potential for utter destruction.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Jean Renoir himself has a small role in this film as the unlucky sap Cabuche, an ex-convict.

Video ** ˝

From chiaroscuro to a complex interaction between light and shadows, La Bęte Humaine demonstrates the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism that foreshadowed the emergence of film noir.  The film is presented in its standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a black & white cinematography that is spontaneously luminous and brooding.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and incorporates the best surviving film elements from a 35mm theatrical print.  The film does appear old at times, with the inevitable occasional earmarks of age (some missing frames or frame jumps, very minor scratches, uneven emulsion scuffs, a few dust spots, etc), but overall the images hold up fairly well.

Audio ** ˝

Sound for La Bęte Humaine is monaural, and the dialogue is in French with optional English subtitles.  There is nothing particularly flashy here, and the old soundtrack does at times sound shrill and thin.  However, this must be tolerated in very old films such as La Bęte Humaine.

Features ***

Viewers are advised not to watch any of the supplements before first seeing the film.  Many of these interviews reveal key plot elements.

In his archival introduction (6 min.), Jean Renoir discusses the making of the film and the wonderful technical advice provided by France's national railroad industry to help ensure the film's authenticity.  Actor Jean Gabin even drove actual trains on the Le Havre-Paris line as practice (the unsuspecting passengers would surely have been quite surprised to learn that their engineer was a famous actor).

In the Peter Bogdanovich interview (11 min.), the former critic and filmmaker discusses La Bęte Humaine with regards to the European milieu of its era.  Bogdanovich's comments are accompanied by stills or clips from various 1930's Renoir films, including of course La Bęte Humaine.  He also describes how the film showcased the techniques of poetic realism.

There are more archival interview clips on this disc.  In an excerpt (24 min.) from the 1968 television program Adapter Zola, Jean Renoir discusses his film and also alludes to his silent melodrama Nana (another Zola work, this time with former wife Catherine Hessling) and Madame Bovary.  He is followed by various Zola scholars and critics who compare the Zola novel to Renoir's contemporary adaptation (and incredulously also Human Desire, Fritz Lang's 1954 Hollywood adaptation of Renoir's adaptation!) and debate quite boisterously over the various merits of each work.

In another rare archival excerpt (7 min.) from live 1957 television, Jean Renoir and Simone Simon appear together in a re-enactment of his directing her during a key scene from La Bęte Humaine.  The premise is a bit hokey but ultimate works extremely well as we get to see the master director himself at his craft.  It's all quite fascinating.

Lastly, the disc closes with a romantic trailer and an art gallery of twenty-eight gorgeous production stills and lobby artwork.

Also included with this DVD is a very stylized 38-page booklet.  It is filled with evocative stills from the film interspersed among the usual cast & crew and DVD credits.  There are also three excellent articles, although I highly recommend reading them only after seeing the film.  The articles tend to reveal a great many plot developments.  "Renoir On and Off the Rails" by Geoffrey O'Brien examines the evocative imagery of the film and the ways in which it differs from the Zola source novel.  "The Beauty of the Beast" is a 1991 article by Ginette Vincendeau that first appeared in the British film journal Sight and Sound.  This article presents various interpretations of the film, examines its film noirish elements, and closes with a tribute to the memorable screen persona of French icon Jean Gabin.

The last article, "The Human Beast," is an excerpt from designer Eugčne Lourié's autobiography, "My Work in Films."  Lourié worked with Renoir on eight films, and in this excerpt, he recalls many highly-amusing anecdotes about the production of La Bęte Humaine, including how some of the more spectacular tracking or panning shots were accomplished.  Lourié also alludes to the occasional uneasiness in the countryside during filming, as war preparations and troop mobilizations were becoming increasingly frequent events.  La Bęte Humaine was released in December 1938, and the Second World War began not too long thereafter.

Summary:

It's not as exotic as the Orient Express, but a train ride to and from Le Havre in La Bęte Humaine can be just as hazardous to one's health.  Part poetic realism, part noir, this acclaimed film from Jean Renoir catapulted its star Jean Gabin to superstardom.  Highly recommended for admirers of classic European cinema.

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