“Now it is a world of studio sets and the precise control of the effects of light and shadow.”
Of the remarkable series of films directed by Jean Renoir that coincided with and reflected the birth and death of the Popular Front,1 La Bête Humaine (1938), Renoir’s second-to-last film before the outbreak of war, is his most conventional. It’s also the one film that seems to follow other strains in contemporary French filmmaking rather than precede them — specifically, aligning itself with the “poetic realism” typified by Carné and Prévert’s Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) or Le Jour se lève (1939), with its expressionist play with light and shadow in studio sets and its romantic fatalism.
The film was a commercial assignment from producers Robert and Raymond Hakim, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel of 1890. Opinions vary as to whether it was the Hakims who brought the Zola project to Renoir ready-made2 or if it was Renoir who offered Zola as a suitable vehicle for Jean Gabin to fulfil the latter’s desire to star as a train driver.3 At any rate, his script of the novel that he was reading now for the first time filleted Zola’s expansiveness down to a straightforward crime melodrama: engine driver Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), forced with his partner Pecqueux (Carette) to sit out the repair of his train in La Havre, witnesses the murder by stationmaster Roubard (Fernand Ledoux) of the wealthy Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz), the godfather, possibly father, and definitely seducer/lover of his young wife Séverine (Simone Simon). Séverine, with her husband’s active encouragement, befriends Lantier in order to buy his silence, and this friendship turns into a passionate affair with inevitably tragic consequences.
Zola’s novel was one of the last of his exhausting 20-novel Rougon-Macquart series, which in naturalist style sought to explicate the hereditary influence of alcoholism and violence over five generations of a single family. Renoir’s film opens with a quotation highlighting this theme:
At times this hereditary flaw weighed heavily upon him. He felt he was paying the price for the generations of his forefathers whose drinking had poisoned his blood. His head felt as if it would explode in the throes of his suffering. He was compelled to acts beyond the control of his will, acts whose causes lay hidden deep within him.
There follows a signed photograph of Zola, as if ascribing the film’s authorship to the novelist and inscribing the film’s project as one faithful to the novelist’s original conception. In fact, Renoir’s adaptation is, to his film’s advantage, not a faithful one, and he’s uninterested in Zola’s theme of the “hereditary flaw.”
Renoir does return fitfully to this theme, but it all seems rather arbitrarily tacked onto the body of the film. Even with this introductory title, it seems something of a surprise when the sympathetic Lantier (played by the ever-sympathetic Gabin) on a visit to his godmother’s (who refers to “those pounding headaches and sudden fevers”) suddenly attempts to strangle the virginal Flore (Blanchette Brunoy, right) as a train roars by on the nearby track. The symbolism that Renoir draws pictorially here — the starkness and barrenness of the railway embankment as the backdrop to the attempted murder, the pastoral beauty that the panning camera and Lantier then retreat to — is in direct contrast to the positive associations that Renoir has so far brought to the railway and Lantier’s work on it.
Much later, when Lantier and Séverine’s affair is well under way and they lie together in Pecqueux’s flat, the theme resurfaces as Lantier starts interrogating Séverine in a slightly disturbed state and then, on being told the truth about Grandmorin, collapses face-down on the bed: “It’s all in my head.” Then the theme vanishes again to wait for its final reappearance in the murder scene, where what happens doesn’t relate to anything that has just preceded it. This Lantier tormented by madness doesn’t fit in with the quiet nobility — Gabin’s performance in the film is tremendous, for example in the low almost-whisper that he woos Séverine with — that he projects elsewhere for the bulk of the film.
Renoir’s heart is not with the Zola themes that he inherited from the novel. Instead, he’s excited by the physicality of men working on a train. This tone is set by the lengthy opening sequence, documentary in style, depicting Lantier and Pecqueux working together in the train engine. The two actors actually learned how to operate a train, which Renoir then filmed for this sequence. There’s an incredible dynamism here with the roar and din of the train as it rushes along the track, Lantier and Pecqueux (or is it rather Gabin and Carette, being more than acting?) working in perfect, almost wordless unison, and the repeated point-of-view shots of the track ahead, the landscape and buildings flashing by, and then the final entry into the Le Havre station.
Here is Renoir’s — rather than Zola’s — naturalism, a desire to expand the world of the film beyond the confines of the individual protagonist and his story to take in a wider social reality. In his thirties films the cinematic means to achieve this include a moving camera, reframing of the image, location shooting, and the use of doorways and windows as frames through which to take us further “into the world.” These strategies, while present, are less extensive in La Bête Humaine because of the conventionality of the romantic/crime melodrama aspect to the film.
In these early, impressive scenes Renoir’s intention is to situate Lantier in his world as a working man. There are scenes and encounters with minor characters that in no way advance the central narrative, that are in fact pauses that deepen our impression of this world. The details (Lantier greeting other drivers, reporting the malfunctioning axle) are more than a conventional filmmaker would deem strictly necessary, but the film is all the richer for them. Renoir is also intent on us comprehending physical location: so the camera frames Lantier and Pecqueux in the washroom (and observe in this scene how a single tap in passing by Lantier on the back of Pecqueux’s neck tells us so much of the depth of their working and personal relationship), pans left to the stairs that go up to their dormitory, dissolves to a shot of them descending in a new change of clothes, then tracks again left following them into the communal kitchen.
La Bête Humaine does reflect its Popular Front context in this celebration of the working man, and also in its awareness of oppressive class distinctions. It’s an issue of class that drives the film’s crime melodrama in the first place, for Roubard only insists that Séverine get in touch with Grandmorin after he inadvertently upsets a wealthy passenger; and of course an exploitative class relationship lies as the basis of Grandmorin’s original preying upon Séverine, just as he did with other women. Furthermore, when the poacher Cabuche (played by Renoir himself, above, whose frantic mugging in this role is rather out of keeping with the rest of the actors) says exactly this to the investigating magistrate, the latter is outraged: “M. Grandmorin’s life was beyond reproach.” It’s no surprise that Cabuche, whose social status is even below that of the likes of Lantier and Pecqueux, ends up being charged with the murder of Grandmorin.
In Séverine there is a fascinating mixture of innocence and guile. We first see her at the window of her apartment, something of a little pet like the kitten she is cradling in her arms. It’s certainly the role her older husband would like her to play: there’s an explicit shot, when the two are staying at Pexqueux’s flat and Roubard is consumed with jealousy, of two caged birds on the balcony, onto which Roubard closes the windows, in the same way that he would like to lock Séverine up and keep her for himself.
But the feline, doll-like Séverine is a much stronger character than her husband, far more capable of taking the initiative. When Roubard collapses emotionally after the murder, she’s the one that approaches Lantier, fearing that he’s now a witness to their shared crime. Still, it’s never entirely clear how conscious she is of her machinations. When the police arrive, she manages through a look of silent pleading to get Lantier to lie by omission, but then later in the park she denies having done this. She insists to Lantier that she only wants a friend and not a lover, a situation which he accepts, but then in their next scene together they appear to be lovers.
In the scenes of Séverine and Lantier’s assignations we have moved very far from the naturalistic lighting of the sequences of Lantier in his working environment. Now it is a world of studio sets and the precise control of the effects of light and shadow. There are shots of heightened, romantic artificiality, the two standing together cheek pressed against cheek, staring off into the distance declaring their love as the studio lighting highlights the area around their eyes and plunges the lower half of their faces into shadow. These conventional effects hardly seem the work of the Renoir who gave us the sweet subtleties of the romance between Maréchal (Gabin) and Elsa (Dita Parlo) in La Grande Illusion (1937).
But by this time Séverine has more clearly become the femme fatale figure, urging Lantier on to murder the pathetic figure that Roubard has become. Indeed, it seems to be Roubard’s very patheticness, the downcast way he slouches around on his rounds, that holds Lantier back from committing that murder. A sense of romantic fatalism becomes especially pronounced in the story, with Séverine in particular almost wallowing in these sensations:
I have nothing left to hope for with you. Tomorrow will be just like yesterday: the same grief and sorrow. It really doesn’t matter. What happens, happens. All I can do is go on living my miserable life until Roubard kills me.
And then, a little later:
When you’ve experienced all the disgusting things I knew as a young girl, it’s madness to hope for a true love of your own.
This dark fatalism, which is reinforced visually in the dark shadows in this part of the film, is in striking contrast to the essential optimism of Renoir’s previous films of this period. The fate of the Gabin character of La Bête Humaine has little in common with his roles in Les Bas-fonds (1936) and La Grande Illusion, but rather with those in such films of poetic realism as Pepe le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937), Le Quai des Brumes, and Le Jour se lève — ending in death.
The story has turned from the wide expanses of the social world of the opening scenes to the claustrophobic one of this trio of sufferers: murder for Séverine, despair for Roubard, madness for Lantier. The film essentially abandons Séverine after her murder — there’s no sense of a lingering presence or effect after her death — and a certain underlying misogyny reveals itself through parallel editing. We are taken back to the railwaymen’s ball where a song is being performed, empasising the eternal fickleness of Woman and her insouciant cruelty: “It’s no fault of Ninon’s little heart . . .” Séverine is the “Ninon” here, bringing destruction on both Lantier and Roubard in her wake.
Lantier is a broken, emptied-out man after the murder, and he turns up to work on the train in a daze. So Renoir returns him and us to the beginning of the film, the world of work and the documentary, the site of La Bête Humaine‘s greatest interest. This is also the world of Lantier’s truest loves, the engine that he has christened Lison and has jokingly declared the woman in his life, and his colleague Pecqueux, the one character in the film with whom Lantier is in total, unforced rapport, a relationship where each gives the other complete, unselfish devotion and support.
We return to the pace, energy, and openness of the film’s initial sequence, as again the train speeds on, but now the dark tones of the crime melodrama have seeped in. The pressure within Lantier reaches breaking point, he attacks Pecqueux, and he leaps to his death. Here Renoir avoids the senseless tragedy of Zola’s ending (Lantier and Pecqueux both fall from the train in a fevered struggle to the death),4) leaving Pecqueux instead to offer a brief eulogy on Lantier. “I haven’t seen him look so peaceful in a long time,” he says as Lantier’s body lies beside the railway track, in the bright, open light, a world away from Séverine’s world of dark, claustrophobic shadows. But this eulogy is a short one, as Pecqueux is gently ordered to return to work. In an ending which allows Renoir’s Frontist impulses to assert themselves, the train will continue its journey, and these working men will resume their labour, ultimately unaffected by the tragedy that has unfolded over the course of the film.
- The Popular Front was the alliance of left-wing parties including the Communists, born ultimately from the threat posed by the right-wing anti-parliamentary demonstrations of 6 February 1934, which won the elections of 3 May 1936. Socialist leader Léon Blum was Prime Minister until June 1937, then returned to power briefly from March to April 1938, by which time the Popular Front had disintegrated. Blum’s successor Edouard Daladier of the Radical Party (one of the Popular Front parties) shifted government policy to the right.
Renoir’s films of the period comprise Toni (1934), Le Crime de M. Lange (1935), La Vie est à nous,Une Partie de Campagne, Les Bas-fonds (all 1936), La Grande Illusion and La Marseillaise (both 1937), La Bête Humaine (1938), and La Règle du jeu (1939). La Vie est à nous and La Marseillaise Were Renoir’s most direct interventions into the political climate of his day. [↩]
- Claude Jean-Philippe, Jean Renoir: une vie en œuvres (Paris: Grasset, 2005), 239. [↩]
- Roger Viry-Babel, Jean Renoir: le jeu et la règle (Paris: Ramsay, 1994), 107. [↩]
- Cf the Gutenberg Project: “But Pecqueux, with one final shove, pushed Lantier out; and the latter, feeling the empty air, at a loss, hung on to his neck so tightly that he dragged him down with him. There were two terrible cries, which mixed together, which died out. The two men, fallen together, dragged under the wheels by the speed of the train, were cut, chopped up, in their stranglehold on one another, in their embrace, those two who had so long lived as brothers. They were found without their heads, without their feet, two bloody trunks which still held tight to one another, as if each were still trying to strangle the other.” (My translation. The novel ends with the image of the driverless train, packed with soldiers on their way to fighting the Prussians, plunging relentlessly on to its inevitable doom. [↩]