LA BETE HUMAINE
"Renoir's contribution to the dark tradition in French cinema (the original film noir) was an adaptation of Zola that, as André Bazin noted, avoided entirely the novel's particularly strained "cinematic vision" while offering its background of social conflict in the documentary-inspired visuals. Jean Gabin earned a place in the hearts of the French people with his portrayal of the working-class hero/victim, Lantier, a devoted engineer on the Paris-Le Havre line who is haunted by the threat of madness inherited from his alcoholic forbears. The station master's wife, Séverine (the feline Simone Simon), herself both femme fatale and victim-of her sex and her class-lures him into her desperate life. "Gabin, with the slightest tremor in his face, could express the most violent feelings," Jean Renoir wrote; his melancholy is nowhere better defined than in the split-second when he looks into a mirror to see the eyes, not so much of a murderer, perhaps, as of a suicide. "Masculinity is traditionally defined by action and power; in the Gabin persona it is characterized by immobility and failure" (G. Vincendeau, "The Beauty of the Beast," Sight and Sound)." - Pacific Film Archive
"Stunning images of trains and railway lines as a metaphor for the blind, immutable forces that drive human passions to destruction. Superb performances from Gabin, Simon and Ledoux as the classic tragic love triangle. The deterministic principles of Zola's novel, replaced by destiny in Lang's remake Human Desire, are slightly muffled here. But given the overwhelming tenderness and brutality of Renoir's vision, it hardly matters that the hero's compulsion to kill, the result of hereditary alcoholism, is left half-explained." - Tom Milne, Time Out
"The arrival of a new print of La Bete humaine in British cinemas raises the question of why the film has such lasting power. To some, any jean Renoir film must necessarily be a masterpiece. For others, the key lies in the subtle eroticism of the Jean Gabin-Simone Simon relationship. And train buffs rank it high as a train movie. Without denying any of these approaches, I want to focus on the film's special place in French culture, and on the figure of Jean Gabin. the French proletarian hero.
"Since history likes great men, it is not surprising that La Bete humaine, in which three of the greatest names in French literature and cinema joined forces, has become emblematic in French culture. A life-size wooden replica of La Lison, Jacques Lantier's steam engine, was the final exhibit in the three hour parade down the Champs-Elysees that marked the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Driven by a Gabin lookalike, the model was called upon to evoke an idea of the French proletariat visualised by Renoir in 1938. dramatically shaped by Zola in 1890, but clearly born on Bastille Day in 1789.
"La Bete humaine has attracted a great deal of criticism. Renoir has been accused of taking the politics out of Zola, and of reducing the novel's social commentary on the corrupt grand-bourgeoisie of the Second Empire to a few glimpses of an elegant Parisian mansion and the office of a judge who claims that he 'knows' murderers by looking at their eyes. Above all, he replaced Zola's apocalyptic end- ing of a driverless train of soldiers speeding to inevitable disaster with Lantier's suicide, fol- lowed by a peaceful gathering of his SNCF mates around his corpse.
"So the film has been seen as a disappointing ideological turning point in Renoir's career. The Popular Front director who celebrated group solidarity and class struggle in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (and La Vie est a nous) now appeared to regress politically, producing a story of individual doom in the tradition of the poetic realism of Carne and Prevert epitomised by Quai des brumes, which, incidentally, Renoir considered reactionary. Another interpretation has it that La Bete humaine is simply symptomatic of the grim political climate of 1938, with the end of the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War and the anticipated approach of the Second World War. In this version, Gabin's suicide at the end of the film comes to represent the lost hopes of the French proletariat. How can a single film prompt such different readings? And, more surprisingly, how can this sombre story of murderous, suicidal, congenitally diseased workers be used as a symbol, in 1989, of the glory of the French Revolution?
"...French cinema in the 30s has two major modes: light and dark. Partly because of its lit- erary heritage, it is the dark tradition which has attracted cultural respectability and international fame for French cinema and through a number of mediations forms part of the archaeology of American film noir. (Lang's Scarlet Street was based on Renoir's La Chienne and Human Desire on La Bete humaine.)
"Photographed for the most part by the German emigre Kurt Courant, who also worked on Le jour se leve. La Bete humaine displays many of the stylistic features of film noir - chiaroscuro and expressionist lighting, Venetian blind shadows - which are at their most powerful in the scene in which Severine is murdered. Zola and German Expressionist cinema meet in these oppressive night scenes, as well as in the insistence on mirrors and reflections.
"But Renoir's film is less relentlessly noir than Quai des brumes, Le jour se leve or the works of Julien Duvivier and Pierre Chenal. The dark alleys, courtyards, hotel rooms and dingy hovels so characteristic of the dark tradition are relieved by light moments, both in mood and in the lighting of the film. There is the scene with Flore, with its emphasis on the bright sky; the meeting between Lantier and Severine in the park; the workers' dance; several of the scenes connected with the train.
"It is in the scenes centred around the railway that Renoir manages to be both faithful to Zola and historically located in the 30s. Echoing Zola's own methods, Renoir, Gabin, Carette and Ledoux all studied aspects of railway work so they could reproduce more accurately prac- tices and gestures. Zola's elegiac description of the engine is transposed into the film's famous opening sequence, in which Gabin and Carette bring their train into Le Havre, communicating by looks and signals over the noise of the engine. This documentary impulse informs several other scenes between Gabin and Carette, especially their meals in the workers' canteen, where the recording of proletarian gestures and language gives banal moments a density far in excess of their narrative function.
"The train in La Bete humaine is the embodiment of both the death drive and of social movement. Crime and suicide take place on it, and on a more abstract level it represents Lantier's murderous instinct. But Renoir is also careful to emphasise the solidarity of the rail- way workers and the function of the railway in the building of modern France. The newly cre- ated, national company is prominently displayed in the word ETAT (state) on the side of engines and trains and is seen behind Roubaud and Severine's heads as they are waiting to kill Grandmorin. After Lantier's death and Pecqueux's eulogy, a guard summons people to clear the tracks and get the train on its way - an image of professionalism and continuity. Rather than abiding by the noir tradition and ending the film with Gabin going off into the night, Renoir ends with a light moment. The tragic destinies of the characters are embedded in a more epic sense of workers' lives.
"So La Bete humaine can be read both as the expression of failed hopes and as the symbol of workers' progress. Scholars may deplore what they see as the absence of social class in the film, but the railway workers' union, which awarded Gabin honorary membership in 1938, clearly approved of the portrayal of themselves. And when French railway workers went on strike in 1987, they invoked La Bete humaine as a nostalgic image of good working conditions.
"But La Bete humaine also conjures up nostalgia for a time when cinema was a truly popular activity. The replica of La Lison on the Champs- Elysdes evoked a memory of a form of community entertainment that has now more or less vanished. And central to this memory are the stars of the time - it was Gabin, as much as La Lison, who was on parade on 14 July 1989." - Ginette Vincendeau, Sight and Sound
"It should not be thought that Renoir was not interested in his subject matter, although it is true that he declared at the time that he couldn't have cared less about Zola, and that all he wanted was to play with trains. But what he meant, I think, was only that he was not very interested in Zola's notions of heredity. La Bete Humaine is part of the Rougon-Macouart series of novels, and its hero Jacaues Lantier (Gabin) is supposed to pay for his alcoholic forbears who have tainted his blood. Such a deterministic idea could not possibly interest Renoir, and the weakest scenes in the film are those when Gabin has to explain his fears of his heredity to the pale and uninteresting Flore (Blanchette Brunoy). Curiously, the 'pure' girl is as unconvincing here as she was in Carne's Le Jour se Leve.
"In Renoir's version the story would have been the same had Gabin had an irreproachable heredity. What interested him was the triangular relationship between the engine-driver Lantier, the station-master (Fernand Ledoux) and his young, minxish wife Severine (Simone Simon). And it is really a three-way triangle, for a kind of masculine solidarity prevents Lantier from killing Severine's husband as he had planned; ultimately, it is the wife who disposes of him. The documentary-like scenes on the Paris-Havre run have been (deservedly) much praised, but the film also contains one of Renoir's most unforgettable sequences: the railwaymen's ball. Renoir has always had a fondness for popular songs, and he knows how to use them to great dramatic effect - as in La Chienne, for example, where a song accompanies the murder of Lulu, and in the Crime de Monsiuer Lange, where Florelle's singing 'Au jour, le jour' is an important element of the film. But here, in the skimpily decorated room (cf. Olmi's improvised dance-halls), the old song 'Pauvre petit coeur de Ninon' serves as an ironic yet pathetic counterpoint to the murder of Severine's husband.
"At the time of its British release, Graham Greene noted that the film's 'documentary' material, although well done, had been done before, if not so well. 'What is most deft is the way in which Renoir works the depot and a man 5s job into every scene-conversations on platforms, in washrooms and canteens. Views from the station-master's window over the steaming metal waste: the short, sharp lust worked out in a wooden plate-layer's shed among shunted trucks under the steaming rain.' And the film, despite its unevenness, triumphs because of the way in which the characters and their milieu are integrated." - Richard Roud, Cinema A Critical Dictionary (1980)