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DVD Pick: La Bete humaine (Criterion Collection)

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An Entertaining, Suspenseful Film With Charismatic Stars

La Bête humaine (The Human Beast) is a 1938 movie written and directed by Jean Renoir, and it was his most popular film at the box office. It's a suspenseful movie that involves sex, jealousy, murder, mental instability and suicide. La Bête humaine is sometimes described as being a precursor to Hollywood film noir, and that description is helpful as a shorthand for the movie's generally dark tone. However, Renoir made a film that is not unrelentingly downbeat, and several scenes are lyrical. In particular, he shows people doing worthwhile work and taking satisfaction in doing it well. Many critics have identified La Bête humaine as being an example of the movement known as poetic realism.

The main character in La Bête humaine is Jacques Lantier, played by the ruggedly handsome Jean Gabin, France's biggest star of the late 1930s. Even though Lantier has a terrible flaw, Gabin is so likable that we are nonetheless sympathetic to his character. Central to the story is Lantier's love for a femme fatale who is well played by the pretty, sweet-faced Simone Simon. Simon appeared in a number of Hollywood movies and is perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences for Cat People (1942).

Renoir's film was inspired by the famous 19th-century novel of the same name by Émile Zola, but the filmmaker moved the story forward in time by seven decades and made other major changes. I have not read the novel, but the Criterion Collection DVD of La Bête humaine includes materials that cover the differences between the book and the movie.

A Crime Drama and a Love Story in a Working-Class Milieu

The film's key location is the train station in the bustling port city of Le Havre, and Renoir spends the first third of the movie establishing this as an authentic-feeling environment. The protagonist Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is the engineer on a coal-burning train that carries passengers between Le Havre and Paris. His stoker is Pecqueux (played by Renoir regular Julien Carette in yet another fine performance). The two coworkers are dedicated to their jobs and enjoy a warm camaraderie. The shots of the pair laboring together to operate the locomotive are unforgettable.

The movie's conflict centers around Séverine (Simone Simon), the comely wife of Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux in a strong performance), stationmaster at the train depot at Le Havre. It's Roubaud's brooding after discovering that he is married to "an old man's cast-off" that incites the film's first murder, and Lantier's love affair with Séverine leads to the second. In a brilliant piece of filmmaking, Renoir heightens the emotional impact of the second murder by intercutting the aftermath with a vocalist crooning about "Ninon's little heart" at the railway workers' ball.

Jean Renoir Intro and Peter Bogdanovich Interview

In 1967 Renoir recorded video introductions for several of his films, and among these was the six-minute La Bête humaine intro that is included on the Criterion Collection DVD. He remarks that the help of the French national railroad was crucial to making the film as he envisioned it. Also, he describes the movie as "sort of a triangle between two women and Gabin. One of these two women is Simone Simon, and the other is a locomotive." This is droll, but actually the film is a triangle between one woman and two men: Séverine (Simone Simon), her husband (Fernand Ledoux) and her lover (Jean Gabin).

Also on the DVD is a sparkling, informative 11-minute interview in which Peter Bogdanovich discusses La Bête humaine. He comments that the movie has narrative drive and moves quickly, yet the viewer can still feel Renoir's compassion for people. In addition, Bogdanovich talks about Renoir's visual style and praises him as having "a painter's and poet's eye." He classifies the film as poetic realism and says the realism part is in using real locations and trains, while the poetry comes in the way Renoir shoots it.

Incidentally, Renoir appears on camera in a small role in La Bête humaine as a man wrongly accused of murder, and Bogdanovich opines that the filmmaker plays his part very well. But to my way of thinking, Renoir comes across here as overly theatrical and unconvincing in the role.

TV Program on the Topic of Adapting Zola to the Screen

The DVD contains a 24-minute 1968 French television program about making feature films based on Zola novels. For the first six minutes, Renoir talks about the three famous French novels he adapted to the big screen. In addition to Zola's La Bête humaine, he made Flaubert's Madame Bovary into a movie in 1934 and Zola's Nana into a silent film in 1926. He mentions that when he was a little boy of about six, he was acquainted personally with Zola, who was then about 60 years old. The connection was that the novelist was a friend of Jean Renoir's father, the celebrated impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The last 18 minutes of the TV program consists of a lively, intellectual panel discussion by a Zola scholar, a film critic and a screenwriter about adapting Zola's novels to the screen. They discuss not only Renoir's adaptation of La Bête humaine, but also the 1954 Hollywood remake, a film noir titled Human Desire that starred Glenn Ford and was directed by Fritz Lang. There's also some talk about distinguishing between screen adaptations that try to be faithful to their literary source and those that strive to create an original work with its own aesthetic. Renoir takes the latter approach, and film critic Jean Collet says, "There's no doubt that La Bête humaine is Renoir's film and one forgets all about Zola."

It's also Collet who voices the program's most thought-provoking idea: "The picturesque is the most odious and formidable foe of poetic expression."

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