La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast)
A film by Jean Renoir
1938/ France / 100 minutes
22nd June 2014; 5.45 pm ; Perks Mini Theater
Emile Zola piles on the melo in his drama of murder and infidelity on the railways while Jean Renoir captures the intensity of emotion involved in working with steam engines. The combination of these two creative giants is as dark and electric as a thunderstorm at midnight.
Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a manic depressive, with violent tendencies whose love of the train he drives surpasses everything – until he meets Severine (Simone Simon). Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), the assistant station master at Le Havre. Then begins the love triangle that leads to the disastrous end.
Roubaud is much older, a company man to his fingertips, unaware of his wife’s “difficult” childhood and previous sexual encounters with her mother’s employer, a philandering aristocrat. Roubaud becomes jealous and angry when he comes to know about this.
Renoir invokes the camaraderie and pride of railwaymen in the years before union strikes and diesel, while ensuring, as with all his films, that the supporting roles are well-equipped with humour and humanity. The film is a study of guilt as it’s all centered around two men and a woman in this world of murder and adultery. The script works as a study of guilt and motivations yet it’s in Renoir’s direction where the film really takes hold. Opening with this amazing, five-minute montage of a train speeding throughout the French countryside, Renoir manages to keep the film pretty straightforward while his compositions are very striking in the way he creates love scenes or some intense, dramatic moments.
Son of the famous Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste, Jean Renoir had a happy childhood. Pierre Renoir was his brother, and Claude Renoir was his nephew. After the end of World War I, where he won the Croix de Guerre, he moved from scriptwriting to filmmaking. He married Catherine Hessling, for whom he began to make movies; he wanted to make a star of her. His next partner was Marguerite Renoir, whom he never married, although she took his name. He left France in 1941 during the German invasion of France during World War II and became a naturalized US citizen.
As a director and actor, he made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. As an author, he wrote the definitive biography of his father, Renoir, My Father (1962). Renoir exerted immense influence on subsequent auteur directors, including among others Orson Welles, Satyajit Ray, and François Truffaut. Best remembered for such cinematic landmarks as Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), Renoir is considered one of the major figures of French and international film history.
Renoir's films were underestimated when they first came out. They were unconventional, complex, and so energetic and technically daring that few noticed their intricate structure. They were often dismissed as rough, not fully achieved artistically. The generation that came to the cinema in the '60s and '70s (perhaps the richest and most diverse era in European cinema) recognised Renoir as an ancestor who had already made the kind of films they admired or were setting out to make themselves, and justly hailed them as masterpieces.