LA BÊTE HUMAINE
(Judas Was a Woman; The Human Beast)
Director: Jean Renoir
Production: Paris Film Productions; black and white; RCA High Fidelity; running time: 88 minutes; length: 7937 feet. Released 23 December 1938. Filmed at Pathé Cinema Studios (Joinville) and on location at Le Havre. Theme song: "Valse Ninon."
Producers: Robert Hakim and Raymond Hakim; screenplay: Jean Renoir, from the novel by Emile Zola; assistant directors: Claude Renoir, Suzanne de Troyes; photography: Curt Courant; editor: Margeurite Renoir; sound: Teysseire; art director: Eugene Lourie; music: Joseph Kosma.
Jean Gabin (
); Simone Simon (
); Fernand Ledoux (
); Julien Carette (
); Blanchette Brunoy (
); Gerard Landry (
); Berlioz (
); Jean Renoir (
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* * *
After the commercial failure of his politically committed film La Marseillaise (1937), Renoir accepted Robert Hakim's invitation to "make a film about trains" for Jean Gabin. Disappointed at the collapse of Grémillon's film project Train d'enfer , Gabin looked to Renoir who had so successfully directed him in the role of Maréchal in La Grande Illusion (1937). For Renoir a screen version of Zola's La Bête humaine represented another opportunity to adapt a greatly admired author whose fiction had previously inspired his silent film Nana (1926).
Reflecting the bleak tone of Zola's portrayal of a man driven by homicidal impulses, Renoir's film is untypically dark and fatalistic for his 1930s period, and with Gabin as the doomed hero, his version has considerable affinity with the deeply pessimistic contemporary Carné-Prévert films such as Quai des Brumes (1938) or Le Jour se lève (1939). The uncharacteristic mood is largely determined by lowkey lighting, and, equally untypically for Renoir, music which is external to the action. His camera too, is noticeably more mobile as it constantly relates individuals to their working environment. Bright daytime locations progressively give way to dark, nocturnal interiors or shadowy industrial landscapes, as the freedom of the fated protagonists gradually diminishes.
Although fidelity to Zola is implied by a quotation from the novel and a signed portrait of the author after the credit sequence, there are several omissions or shifts of emphasis in Renoir's screen adaptation. Whereas Zola's richly textured epic novel is partly a study of atavism, partly a portrait of the railway community, it is also a satire of the judiciary and an indictment of the corrupt Second Empire. The author's multi-layered poetic narrative explores the murderous instinct thematically through a number of minor characters and situations, but Renoir concerns himself only with the protagonists, discarding several narrative elements, such as the train crash, the train trapped by snow, and the sustained satire of the judicary with its overt political dimension. For a director intimately associated with the Popular Front, Renoir surprisingly resists the political potential, and plays down Zola's social contrasts. If in La Marseillaise he had explored ideas, in La Bête humaine , Renoir is more concerned with mood and action. For André Bazin, Renoir's adaptation provided a tighter plot and was more successful in integrating the triangular relationship between Séverine, Lantier, and Roubaud into an account of railway life.
Casting against type Renoir insisted on Simone Simon for the role of the flirtatious but frigid Séverine to play against Gabin's Lantier. Excellent performances come from Julien Carette as the stoker Pecqueux and from Fernand Ledoux as the once jealous, now broken, Roubaud. In only his second screen role, a rather melodramatic Renoir plays the poacher Cabuche wrongly accused of murder.
The sense of compulsion which permeates the film is established in the opening train sequence. The journey from Paris to Le Havre, as Alexander Sesonske has shown, is brilliantly distilled in four and a quarter minutes. Speed is conveyed not so much by cutting between shots as by the rhythm of movement within the shots. From the closeup of the train's roaring fire-box, suggesting the passionate forces at work, the camera records the train hurtling through the countryside, set on a track from which it must not deviate, with Lantier and Pecqueux working in complete harmony to harness the machine's formidable power, and to ensure punctuality. The closing sequence of the film, a return run of the journey with the men now fighting, expresses the idea of men unable to break free of predetermined patterns.
The images of the men working, the informative shots of the station yards, the ubiquitous sound of trains keep the presence of the railway to the fore, thus respecting Zola's documentary intentions. Character is intimately studied in terms of a working environment, whether on the train, in the yards, in the canteen, in the showers or at the lodgings. It is in these sequences with railway men functioning as a team and taking pride in their work that Renoir remains faithful to the values of the Popular Front. Throughout he enjoyed the invaluable technical cooperation of the French railways, and with the exception of Gabin's final suicidal leap from the locomotive, all the railway sequences were shot on location with direct sound recording.
Renoir represents Lantier's inner turmoil symbolically with the wind raging through his hair, while his psychopathic self is darkly reflected in a puddle as he reaches for a murder weapon, or, after he has stabbed Séverine, in a mirror where low-key lighting gives him a particularly monstrous appearance. Perhaps the most powerful sequence comes with Séverine's murder when a demented Lantier suddently turns on his mistress in an uncontrollable frenzy. The music of the railway ball floods the screen with its ironic song about flirtatious love and possession, linking and contrasting scenes of public enjoyment with a scene of private horror.
Acknowledging his debt to Renoir, Fritz Lang remade La Bête humaine as Human Desire in 1954. The most detailed study of La Bête humaine is found in Jean Renoir by Alexander Sesonske.
—R. F. Cousins