|Rarely 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.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3)
James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.
© 1998 - 2023 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.