La Chienne

La Chienne
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Georges de La Fouchardière)
Stars: Michel Simon (Maurice Legrand), Janie Marèse (Lucienne Pelletier), Georges Flamant (Dédé), Magdeleine Bérubet (Adèle Legrand), Roger Gaillard (L’adjudant), Romain Bouquet (Henriot), Pierre Desty (Gustave), Mlle Doryans (Yvonne), Alexandre Rignault (Langelard), Lucien Mancini (Wallstein), Marcel Courmes (Colonel), Jane Pierson (La concierge), Christian Argentin (Le juge d’instruction), Max Dalban (Bernard), Henri Guisol (Amedée), Jean Gehret (Dugodet)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1931
Country: France
La Chienne Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
La ChienneJean Renoir’s La Chienne, the great French director’s second sound film and arguably the first to fully embody the naturalistic style and complex social themes that would come to be associated with his best work, centers on a twisted love triangle that would be morbidly funny if it weren’t so pathetic. That balance—or battle—between the humorous and the tragic is central to the film’s effectiveness, which Renoir self-consciously foregrounds in the film’s opening moments in which Guignol puppets literally battle it out to describe the film, with the final description being that it is “neither a drama nor a comedy” and that it has no “moral message.” Thus, from the very beginning, Renoir positions the film as a rejection of simplistic notions of good and evil, right and wrong, good and bad, as murder goes unpunished, a man is wrongly executed, and all the various forms of social corruption we witness remain firmly, intractably in place.

Michel Simon, who starred in five of Renoir’s films starting with the 1928 military farce The Sad Sack (Tire au flanc), plays Maurice Legrand, a meek, downcast clerk at a hosiery company stuck in a loveless marriage with a bitter shrew named Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet) who belittles him at every turn, especially when it comes to his hobby of painting. Legrand, the perennial “wet blanket,” as one of his coworkers describes him, falls hopelessly in love with Lulu (Janie Marèse), a young prostitute who is, in turn, enamored with her abusive pimp, Dédé (Georges Flamant). Lulu entertains Legrand’s affections, although it is primarily to use him for monetary gain, which is exactly how Dédé treats her (and the cycle goes on and on). When Legrand begins running out of money, Lulu and Dédé realize they can sell his paintings, passing them off as the work of an up-and-coming American painter that Lulu pretends to be, with the ironic twist being that this nonexistent artist becomes a famous figure in the art world whose paintings command top dollar.

As an attack on both romance and bourgeois attitudes toward decorum and propriety, La Chienne is a caustic comedy—a “brutal slice of life,” as fellow French director Marcel Carné described it—although Renoir’s fundamental humanism and sympathy for his characters takes some of the edge off (in the puppet introduction, the characters are described as “neither heroes nor villains,” but rather “poor humans like you and me”). The title, which translates directly as The Bitch, is an epithet aimed at Lulu in the film, although it could arguably refer to life itself, as an alternate English title for the film is Isn’t Life a Bitch?. It is a bitch indeed, for everyone involved, as no one escapes the plot mechanics unscathed. Based on the popular 1930 novel by Georges de La Fouchardière, a prolific writer who was known for both his Bouif detective stories and his sharp social satires, La Chienne takes aim at a number of targets, one of which is the art world, which it presents as a decidedly shady enterprise replete with charlatans, opportunists, and outright criminals, an intriguing development given that Renoir was the son of the great Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir and he funded many of his early films by selling his father’s celebrated paintings. As with many of Renoir’s films, the niceties of polite society are revealed to be largely a sham, a theme that he would explore with even more acidity in his next film, Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), in which Michel Simon plays a vagrant who takes advantage of a decent family that tries to help him.

Simon, a big, shambling actor with an incredibly expressive mug of a face, has never been quite so withdrawn and pitiful as he is here. With slouched shoulders and ill-fitting clothes and eyes that never seem to rise, he conveys a complete sense of loss, whether he is being berated by his wife or mocked by his coworkers or rejected by Lulu. The hangdog manner in which he pursues Lulu is truly sad, and it is tempting to read real life into his longing stares as Simon reportedly was in love with Janie Marèse, the actress who played Lulu, who was herself romantically involved with Georges Flamant, the actor who played Dédé (she would die shortly after filming wrapped in a car accident with Flamant, who survived). We keep waiting for Legrand to emerge triumphant—the revenge of the nerd—but even when he makes a fateful, passionate decision late in the film, one that has literal life-and-death consequences, he leaves the scene looking more slumped than ever, fully defeated even in his own moment of action. It is brutally ironic, although not in any way unexpected, that the film’s epilogue finds him living as a vagrant and happier than ever for his complete disassociation from the society that never had a place for him (it is further amusing that Simon essentially continued the role a year later in Boudu).

La Chienne was pivotal for Renoir’s career, as it fully established his unique style and voice, which he would continue to refine throughout the 1930s as he broke free from the large shadow cast by his famous father. Renoir controlled the film completely, describing himself as “pitiless” and “unbearable” during the production; he hid the script and all the rushes from his producer, who was expecting that he was making a “light comedy,” and he was later locked out of the editing room, only to be allowed back in after the producer realized there was no way to assemble the footage into what he wanted. Renoir later wrote that La Chienne cost him his marriage to Catherine Hessling, who he had cast in many of his silent films and planned to cast here as Lulu; when the producer insisted that he cast Janie Marèse, who was under contract, Renoir made the concession, a “betrayal,” as he wrote, that “marked the end of our life together.”

In other areas, though, Renoir refused to compromise. His insistence on recording direct sound, rather than relying on post-synchronization, gives the film an added layer of realism, as the soundtrack is replete with the real-life sounds of Paris, where most of it was shot. Renoir’s eye for detail proved impressive, and his sense of camera movement was far ahead of its time (his cinematographer, the German-born Théodore Sparkuhl, trained at Gaumont and would go on to a long Hollywood career, where he helped establish the film noir style with films like The Glass Key in 1942). La Chienne prefigures the complex tracking shots, deep focus, and spatial depth that would come to define Renoir’s aesthetic, making him an important forerunner to Orson Welles and a particularly celebrated figure in the writings of French critic André Bazin, who saw in his style the essence of cinema itself. While La Chienne is not Renoir’s greatest film—that would be either La Grande Illusion (1937) or The Rules of the Game (1939)—it certainly prefigures them, paving the path for him to become one of the most eminent and controversial figures in pre-World War II European cinema.

La Chienne Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.19:1
AudioFrench Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Introduction to the film from 1961 by director Jean Renoir
  • Video interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner
  • On purge bébé (1931), Renoir’s first sound film
  • Jean Renoir le patron: “Michel Simon” 1967 French television program
  • Essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 14, 2016

    La Chienne looks absolutely superb on Criterion’s new Blu-ray. The high-definition transfer was made in the film’s original 1.19:1 aspect ratio (which many early sound films had, as part of the 1.37:1 frame was eaten up by the sound-on-film soundtrack) from a 35mm safety fine-grain print made from the original 35mm nitrate negative, which was restored in 2014. The clarity and lack of wear and tear on the image would be remarkable for a film half its age, which says a ton for the work that went into the restoration of the original negative. The image is sharp, detailed, and stable, with only a few moderate signs of damage that will likely go unnoticed by most viewers. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the restored 35mm optical soundtrack negative, is also quite impressive. Granted, the sonic quality is inherently limited by the relatively primitive nature of the technology at the time and Renoir’s insistence on recording everything directly, which means that dialogue is sometimes a bit unintelligible and must compete with background sounds. However, to my ears it sounded like a perfectly accurate presentation of an early ’30s synchronized sound film.
    There is an impressive slate of supplements included on Criterion’s disc, starting with a newly restored transfer of On purge bébé (1931), Renoir’s first sound film (also starring Michel Simon), which he made largely to prove that he could produce a sound film on time and on budget. The inclusion of this 52-minute feature essentially makes the disc a double-feature. Renoir appears in a short introduction to La Chienne that he filmed for French television in 1961. He also appears in a 1967 episode of the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, the middle episode of a three-part series called Jean Renoir le patron, this one focused on his multiple collaborations with Michel Simon. The 95-minute episode finds him in a lengthy and absorbing conversation with Simon that is moderated by Jacques Rivette, who also directed. Also on the disc is a 25-minute interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner (author of two books on Renoir), who talks about the importance of La Chienne to the director’s evolving career and the circumstances leading to its production.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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