La Bête Humaine (1938)

12 04 2008

Not quite as great as Gabin’s collaborations with Marcel Carné but a good movie none the less. If it wasn’t obvious, this “poetic realism” has been growing on me a lot lately. Speaking of which, this is probably the most artistically ambitious film I’ve seen from period. Where this doesn’t have all the depth of Port of Shadows or Daybreak, it makes up for it in aesthetic categories. It seems that Renoir is a bit more willing to partake in some formal experimenting than his peers, but this doesn’t always yield fantastic results. Still, Jean Gabin is in this and he alone is worth giving it a try.

Jacques Lantier, a honest hard-working train conductor who gets caught in the middle of Mr. Grandmorin’s murder case, which was done by Roubad with his wife, Séverine. To keep him from talking, Séverine begins to spend time with Jacques, and eventually, they both fall in love. This is not part of Roubad’s plan, though, and he is constantly trying to win his wife back. Jacques and Séverine decide that the only way they’ll ever be able to live together in peace is if they kill Roubad. This plan, also goes wrong but results in something much more tragic.

As with Carné-Gabin collaborations, one has to be ready for a certain amount of overly-dated aspects. Fades, dissolves, overly-expressive music, a straightforward structure and so on. To make matters worse, the film begins with a excerpt from Zola’s original text with some terribly intrusive music in the background. From there on, though, it’s relatively smooth-sailing. The sequences on a real life train have a certain mystique to them. They have an odd steadicam feel brought on by the train’s organic vibrations. The fades, which are usually just a minor flaw, are practically problematic here as Renoir seems to be attempting a rapid-fire style of editing. This idea is eventually abandoned but I have to admit that it was interesting to see something new being tried in the context of a very a formal movie. This isn’t to discredit Renoir’s style, if anything, I find that this has a bit more lyrical visual style when compared to Carné’s work.

As skillful as Renoir is with the camera, he seems a bit lighter on the characters. For what it’s worth, Peter Bogdonavich recognizes this as being unusually plot-heavy for Renoir’s standards. Still, I could do without the self-conscious attempt at being film-noir. It seems that the few moments we are given to observe the characters are rushed, so much so that we can get to a scene that is more energetic. That said, all the performances do come off as very genuine with one exception, ironically enough, being a cameo performance from Renoir himself. Simone Simon, though is pretty fantastic, and of course, Gabin is magical in that inexplicable way. It seems that, regardless of the film, he is able to breath complexity into his character. He makes even the shallowest of writing seem deep and profound. Thankfully, the writing here isn’t shallow, and the film is extremely accomplished. In other words, there isn’t much to complain about.

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