La bête humaine

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Émile Zola)
Stars: Jean Gabin (Jacques Lantier), Simone Simon (Séverine Roubaud), Fernand Ledoux (Roubaud), Blanchette Brunoy (Flore), Gérard Landry (Le fils Dauvergne), Jenny Hélia (Philomène), Julien Carette (Victoire Pecqueux), Claire Gérard (Une voyageuse), Charlotte Clasis (Tante Phasie), Jacques Berlioz (Grandmorin)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1938
Country: France
La Bête humaine Criterion Collection DVD
La Bête humaineRarely has the title of a film been more seemingly blunt in denoting its view of humanity than Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine, which translates as “The Human Beast.” However, the film is not nearly as complete in its dark view of human nature as the title or the source novel by Émile Zola would suggest. While Zola’s novel is mired entirely in pessimism, Renoir, whose career fluctuated with visions of humanism and despair, balances the darkness with flashes of potential human goodness and camaraderie.

The story centers around Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), a train engineer who is literally doomed before birth by his flawed heredity. In a rather tacky, long opening scroll, we are informed that Lantier descends from alcoholics and violent men who have passed their flaws down to him.

Lantier finds himself caught in a love triangle-cum-murder scenario that virtually guarantees annihilation for everyone by the end (the film’s influence on film noir’s chiaroscuro fatalism is abundantly obvious in virtually every frame). He is secretly in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sultry wife of stationmaster Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), who is clearly aware that his age, baldness, and pudgy demeanor make him a visually unfit husband for her. Like all insecure men, he takes out his insecurities on Séverine with jealousy and mistrust, especially when he learns that she was once the teenage mistress of Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz), a wealthy hedonist. Roubaud decides that he and Séverine will enhance their bond by murdering Grandmorin together, an act whose only possible witness turns out to be Lantier.

The story becomes even more complicated once Lantier confesses his love for Séverine and she tries to convince him to murder her husband so they can be together. The role of violence in the story takes an interesting turn when Lantier finds himself on the brink of offing his romantic rival, but folds under the pressure, thus suggesting that he cannot be consciously and purposefully violent. In other words, when violence is a moral choice, he chooses right. However, early in the film we see Lantier’s violent nature unleashed on a girlfriend (Jenny Hélia), suggesting that his true, inherited violence is uncontrollable by him or anyone else. In a sense, then, Lantier is two different people, one of whom is ruled by his conscious mind and one of whom is ruled by his flawed heredity.

This is a deeply intriguing idea and one that is not without merit, especially in today’s more psychologically sophisticated parlance. However, it is also the film’s chief liability in that Renoir stages Lantier’s inner turmoil between his desire to do right and his damaged heredity via awkward moments of sudden transition that would be more at home in an over-the-top rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is little or no nuance or subtlety to Lantier’s mood swings, and his violent outburts carry a tinge of silly melodrama that often undermines the film’s tense subtext.

Even with this central flaw, La bête humaine is never less than compelling, especially in the good ol’ fashioned sense of being drawn into a narrative and waiting with baited breath to find out what happens next. Renoir includes some nice touches that are absent from the Zola novel, such as Lantier’s relationship with his friend and fellow engineer Victoire Pecqueux (Julien Carette), who represents the potential human decency; when Lantier admits his having killed someone, Dauvergne tells him that he should go straight to the police and confess.

Renoir also employs his unique sense of poetic realism to the film, using long takes of trains chugging along to suggest the powerful, headlong nature of fate. However, Renoir shot most of the film on location, rather than in studios, which gives its fatalistic story a more compelling sense of documentary-like verisimilitude. Some of the story’s psychological details may ring awkwardly false, but La bête humaine always looks impressive realistic, which gives its tragic story about the demise of a working-class stiff that much more power.

La bête humaine Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Introduction by Jean Renoir
  • Introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich
  • Excerpt from the 1968 French TV show Adapter Zola
  • Excerpt from a 1957 French TV show featuring Renoir and Simone Simon
  • Gallery of on-set photographs and theatrical posters
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Booklet featuring writings by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, historian Ginette Vincendeau, and production designer Eugène Lourié
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 14, 2006

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer looks marvelous. Taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, the image is smooth, clean, and very filmlike. The cool shades of gray and dark contrasts of the pre-noir cinematography looks fantastic throughout. As with two other recent Criterion releases of films shot in the Academy aspect ratio, La Bête humaine has a black border around all four sides of the frame, which helps avoid image loss due to overscan on conventional monitors, but also reduces the overall resolution. Numerous message boards are alight with discussions about the merit of this decision by Criterion to present its 1.33:1 films in this manner, and at this point, especially with widescreen TVs becoming more common, it seems to me to be a mistake to sacrifice resolution.

    The original French monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic audio track and digitally restored, sounds good throughout. Renoir uses some interesting sound devices in the film, such as the opening shock cut that throws us into a engine’s fiery furnace while the whistle screams on the soundtrack.

    La bête humaine comes packaged with a small, but effective array of supplements. There are two introductions to the film, one by director Jean Renoir recorded for French television in the 1950s (most of Criterion’s Renoir DVDs feature these introductions) and one by filmmaker/scholar Peter Bogdanovich, who offers a typically lucid, solid analysis of the film’s importance within both pre-war European cinema and Renoir’s career. There is also an extensive excerpt from a 1968 French TV program called Adapter Zola about adapting Emile Zola’s works to film. It features an interview with Renoir and also a roundtable of scholars debating the merits of Zola’s work on-screen. Another French TV excerpt, this one from 1957, has Renoir showing the audience how he directed Simone Simon. Also included are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery of on-set photographs and international poster art. The thick insert booklet includes three essays: a new evaluation of the film by critic Geoffery O’Brien, a reprinted 1991 Sight & Sound article by film historican Ginette Vincendeau, and an excerpt from the autobiography of production designer Eugène Lourié.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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