Tuesday, February 17, 2009

La Bête Humaine: The Criterion Collection

By Steve Evans

The pitch:
A tale of a murderous ménage à trois, infused with rich symbolism and social commentary by the undisputed master of early French cinema.

Director Jean Renoir veers from his humanist work to deliver a blueprint for what would become known as film noir a decade later. A virtual template for the psychological thriller, Alfred Hitchcock almost certainly studied this intense 1938 film that was years ahead of its time. Contemporary directors should do likewise for lessons in pure craftsmanship and suspense. La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) was a one-off statement from the French director, who would never make another film as brutally powerful, yet so quietly devastating as this one. With Criterion's expert presentation, the picture remains a rich viewing experience 70 years later, as Renoir explores fatalism and innate human savagery, brought on by co-dependence, mental instability and the heartbreaking betrayal of infidelity. Though a lesser film in the Renoir canon (Rules of the Game remains the acknowledged masterpiece), this is merely by a matter of degrees. La Bête Humaine is based on an 1890 novel (cover art, upper right) by romanticist Émile Zola.

And now for a bit of plot…
Train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin, Grand Illusion) drives his beloved locomotive Lison from Paris to La Havre, where he rests for a few days when an axle overheats and must be replaced. A brooding man, Lantier is plagued by occasional and violent seizures, which he blames on the excessive drinking of his forefathers “who poisoned my blood,” as he confides to a friend. Lantier only seems truly alive when driving his locomotive. Donning goggles, he sticks his head out from behind the engineer's seat through the open window where he inspects the tracks, reveling in the sensation of pure speed as the wind whips over his face. His relationship with Lison borders on sexual, and seemingly soothes his temperament.

The La Havre stationmaster, Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux, Les Misérables), and his pretty wife, Séverine (Simone Simon, The Devil and Daniel Webster) like to socialize with the tight railroad community, though Séverine is by far the more popular of the two. The lady is a tramp. The older Roubaud harbors vague suspicions of his young wife's various infidelities, although his pathological possessiveness may be the very reason she seeks comfort in the arms of other men.

When Lantier becomes witness to a murder, Séverine buys the engineer's silence with an invitation to her bed. But her husband always seems to be lurking nearby, skulking in the shadows of the railyard. Lantier fancies he's in love, but any normal man in possession of his faculties would turn from the sweetly poisonous Séverine and run. As the three points of this triangle begin to turn on one another, Séverine wonders if another murder may be the price of freedom.

Historical Significance & Context
Jean Renoir worked in almost every film genre and even invented a few, including the social satire (starting with Boudu Saved From Drowning). Here, he creates a classic noir years before French critics even came up with the label “films noir” — the dark, nihilistic, cynical cinema that American studios began churning out in the 1940s on thin budgets. Here, he assembled a superb cast of absolutely authentic-looking character actors. Renoir also reunited with Gabin on this picture after their collaboration a year earlier on Grand Illusion.

A superstar in his native France, Gabin was only 34 when he made La Bête Humaine. And yet, he appears much older—conveying the weariness of a man so confused and disappointed by life that he could be easily entranced by the seductive charms of a duplicitous woman.

Simone Simon, the quintessential French femme fatale, would later appear in the most famous of RKO Producer Val Lewton's effective low-budget chillers, Cat People and its sequel, Curse of the Cat People. She died of natural causes in Paris in 2005. Simon was 94. (Gabin, Simon, above.)

Renoir himself appears in an amusing cameo as an outspoken, train-riding hobo whose dialogue is thinly veiled commentary on the moral themes explored in the film. But this is mainly a picture dealing in dread and tragedy.

La Bête Humaine contains several scenes of such tightly-coiled suspense that it is not possible to watch without wondering how often Hitchcock held private screenings of the picture for his own education.

In addition to a lifelong fascination with human frailties, Renoir possessed a genetic talent for capturing stunning visuals (he is the son of French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir). Here the director deploys symbolism both subtle and overt to makes his points about fatalism and emotional entanglements. Subtle symbols include the frequent tracking shots from the engineer's perspective on the locomotive, as this inexorable forward movement of the train sweeps the protagonist along to his destiny. More obvious is the camera’s chaste panning away from a lovemaking scene during a thunderstorm to stop on the lingering shot of a waterspout gushing into a bucket until it slows to a trickle.

La Bête Humaine benefits especially from stark black and white cinematography by the director's nephew Claude Renoir, whose genius with cameras would never surpass his work on Jean Renoir’s first Technicolor film, The River. Modern audiences can revel in Claude Renoir's insistence on authenticity: When filming the many shots of rumbling locomotives, only one rear-projection image is used (at the climax, as an obvious necessity); every other train sequence was shot on the tracks at 60 mph. During a 45-year career, Claude Renoir would also frame John Frankenheimer's The French Connection II and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me, but the work for his uncle is unparalleled.

The image on this disc is occasionally soft, but this may be more a factor of the film's age than Criterion's restoration and digital-transfer efforts. The monaural sound is clean and dialogue-centric, dispersing audio to the front and center channels. It is unspectacular, but gets the job done.

Extra features include an introduction of the film prepared by Renoir in 1967 (which reveals significant plot points, so beware if watching this before the feature film). In his delightfully droll manner, Renoir notes that the project came to life simply because star Jean Gabin wanted to make a movie about trains. The disc also features a short interview with director Peter Bogdanovich (Targets, The Last Picture Show) who shares his insights and claims La Bête Humaine may be Renoir’s best picture. Archival interviews, a trailer, and gallery of production stills are augmented by a beautiful, 40-page booklet with writings on the film.

La Bête Humaine was remade poorly and unnecessarily in 1954 as Human Desire, starring Glenn Ford (Blackboard Jungle) and directed, incredibly, by the great German Expressionist Fritz Lang (M).

Although it's getting a bit redundant to note that Criterion always delivers the goods, the fact is, the talents behind this boutique collection of important films know precisely what they are doing. And we like it. For Renoir compleatists and collectors of noir this is a must-have disc.

Renoir directs this heart-breaking tragedy with consummate skill — for which he is justly famous. Criterion deserves high praise for presenting another quality package, especially for a lesser-known film from this artful director.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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