La bete humaine
March 12, 2006
La Bete Humaine (1938) is often cited as an example of poetic realism, popular in the 1930s in France, and that also anticipated the popularity of film noir in the 1940s. Jean Renoir’s film was based loosely on Emile Zola’s novel with the filmmaker deviating quite significantly on several major plot points in the book and in tone.
Jacques Lantier (Gabin) operates a coal-powered locomotive and as the film begins, we see him at work, the train hurtling along the track at a fantastic speed. Renoir’s camera captures the kinetic energy of working aboard this vehicle. He shows what it takes to operate the train with the attention to detail looking very authentic. It’s tough work and Lantier is good at what he does. The train is an extension of him and to this end, he even names it Lison.
On the surface, Lantier seems to lead an uncomplicated life but his godmother alludes to a troubled past plagued with “pounding headaches and sudden fevers. The waves of despair that had you hiding like an animal in a hole.” He assures her that he is much better now.
The first signs of cracks in his calm, cool façade appear in his tumultuous relationship with a local woman. He forces himself on her near the train tracks, trying to kiss her. She resists, at first, and then gives in. Suddenly, he begins to strangle her but a passing train roars right by them breaking the spell and he stops. Lantier is haunted by his family’s past – one plagued by rampant alcoholism and violence.
On a train ride back from seeing his godmother, a man is murdered on board by a young woman named Severine (Simon) and her jealous husband, Mr. Roubaud (Ledoux). The train is nearly empty leaving very few suspects for the police to choose from. Severine is concerned that Lantier saw something and gets close to him in order to find out what he knows. She is a cold and calculating femme fatale who knows how to manipulate men for her own needs.
Lantier is conflicted. He saw the Roubauds come from the direction of the murder but is also in love with Severine and so he completes a love triangle of husband-wife-lover that can only end badly in this kind of a movie.
Jean Gabin brings a wonderful sense of the everyman to the role of Lantier. He does a good job of playing a man trying to lead an honest life but who is seduced and corrupted by a dishonest woman who only complicates his life. He brings a quiet dignity to his role and the doomed fatalism of a noir protagonist.
“Jean Renoir Introduction” was recorded in 1967. He talks about how he got involved in the movie and also how he and Gabin researched locomotives with the actor even operating one. Renoir also talks about how they filmed all of the train sequences.
There is an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who says that La Bete Humaine is unlike others in Renoir’s body of work in that it is his only thriller and a precursor to film noir. He describes it as a film about people and done with compassion by Renoir. Bogdanovich speaks very knowledgeably about Renoir’s film, its themes, techniques used and its origins.
“Adapter Zola” is taken from a 1968 television program where Renoir discusses adapting Zola’s book with Zola scholar Henri Mitterand, Gervaise (1956) screenwriter Pierre Bost and film critic Jean Collet. Renoir speaks admiringly of Gabin’s performance in the movie while the critics talk about his modernization of Zola’s novel and the differences between the two.
“Renoir Directs Simone Simon” is an excerpt from a 1957 TV show dedicated to Renoir. He is reunited with Simon and they recreate how he directed her during the murder scene, specifically how they did the close-up. This extra gives some insight into his methods and how he worked with actors.
Finally, there is a trailer and a gallery of on-the-set photos and various movie posters.