Jean Renoir's "La bête humaine" (1938) is based on Émile Zola's famous 1890 novel. Zola was one of the major advocates of the literary tradition of naturalism, the attempt to replicate reality in art which makes him a natural fit with Jean Renoir, one of the paragons of the realist aesthetic in cinema. Zola was also a proponent of determinism, the notion that future events are inevitably determined by previous events, all of which are linked in an unbreakable causal chain: in determinism, there is no room for chance or free will. Many of Zola's characters were scarred irrevocably by the sins of their ancestors and doomed to repeat their fate. To my sensibilities, Zola's particular brand of determinism is a ridiculous notion that sounds an awful lot like another ridiculous notion: the doctrine of "original sin." Which reminds me of a joke.
Jesus was walking home one day when he saw a woman in the town square. An angry crowd was gathered around her, preparing to stone her to death. Jesus was told that the woman had been found guilty of adultery. Jesus stepped in front of the woman and addressed the crowd: "Let whoever among you who is without sin cast the first stone!" A woman in the back of the crowd stood up and chucked a huge stone right off the adulteress' head. Jesus looked to the back of the crowd and shouted: "Mom! Sometimes you really piss me off!"
Yeah, I know, I shouldn't quit my day job. Back to the review.
In "La bête humaine" the poor doomed soul is Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), whose fate is sealed by his ancestors' propensity for heavy drink. Lantier is a humble train conductor who is periodically given to epileptic fits which turn him into a real Monsieur Hyde who can't control his violent urges. Yet Lantier is hardly the worst monster in this film. The brutish Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his scheming young wife Séverine (Simone Simon) take top honors there. Out of jealousy, Roubaud kills Séverine's older lover on a train. Lantier witnesses the crime, but doesn't report it to the police, even allowing an innocent man to be accused instead. At first it appears Lantier simply doesn't care: later we realize that he has designs on the lovely Séverine who, in turn, wants Lantier to help rid her of the husband she no longer loves. It is this developing love triangle that drives the rest of the film to its gruesome climax.
Zola was primarily concerned with the contrast between (so-called) civilized man and his ancient, base nature that simmers under the thin veneer of social propriety. Man is inherently cruel ("the human beast" of the title) and the trappings of civilization are, to quote the great philosopher Roddy Piper, "like putting perfume on a pig." Some of that conflict is lost in Renoir's stripped-down adaptation which plays out like a film noir even though in 1938 the classic noir cycle had not yet begun ("The Maltese Falcon" was still three years away). The plot contains a series of betrayals and the characters exhibit a dubious morality, all typical noir characteristics. Séverine is a classic femme fatale who drives Lantier to crime, though not necessarily to the crime she wants him to commit. Lantier seems like a helpless dupe at times, but ultimately he can't be trusted or controlled by anyone, not even himself. Damn those rum-soaked ancestors!
None of this misanthropic fatalism seems quite right in the hands of Renoir who is usually perceived as a more generous, humanistic director. The film makes more sense, however, when considered in the context of late 1930s Paris as the impending shadow of war loomed over the land. That's not to say that Renoir somehow foresaw the Nazi blight chugging like a locomotive towards France and the rest of Europe, but he was hardly the only pessimistic Parisian artist of the time. Even keeping that in mind, however, this schematic plot is short on motivation and plausibility. Lantier and Roubaud are automatons who do the things they do only because the story requires them to, but I suppose that can be chalked up to Zola's determinism once again. Aside from Gabin, I also found the performances in the film (especially Simon's) to be stiff and unconvincing though I am in the minority opinion on that front.
Jean Gabin was one of France's greatest stars of the time, best known for his previous work with Renoir in "The Lower Depths" (1936) and "Grand Illusion" (1937). He could pick and choose his roles, and one joke is that Gabin wanted to make "La bête humaine" so that he could drive a train. Whether this is true or not, the best scenes in the movie involve trains. The famous opening sequence (several minutes long) begins on the flames of the furnace as a stoker feeds the engine. Then a smiling Gabin, his face stained with soot, leans out of the train as it soars along the tracks, the countryside racing by in a blur, the wheels thrumming along the tracks. Even if the rest of the movie is unusually sour by the director's standards, this sequence is vintage Renoir: the beauty of motion, sound and landscape captured perfectly on film, and proof that realism and montage are not always incompatible.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. One some televisions you will see black bars on the left and right edges of the screen, but most DVD players compensate and zoom in on the image. For the most part, the image quality is excellent but there are a few scenes in which the picture looks soft and unusually grainy.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. This is a matter of personal taste, but I thought the soundtrack was overwrought and sometimes entirely inappropriate. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
This single disc Criterion release offers an eclectic collection of special features:
"Adapter Zola" is an excerpt (24 min.) from a 1968 French television program: in the first half, Renoir shares his thoughts on Zola's book, in the second half several French critics dissect the strengths and weaknesses of Renoir's adaptation.
"Renoir Directs Simone Simon" is a segment (7 min.) from a 1957 TV broadcast in which Renoir and Simon recreate one of the famous scenes from "La bête humaine."
The disc also includes an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (11 min.), an introduction to the film by Renoir (6 min., filmed in 1967), a Trailer and a Gallery (still photos, posters.)
The insert booklet is quite hefty and includes essays by critics Geoffrey O'Brien and Ginnette Vincendeau as well as an article by production designer Eugène Lourié.
I am too skeptical of Zola's grim determinism to fully embrace "La bête humaine." However, it is a widely regarded film though I suspect most critics would still agree with me that it is not the equivalent of other Renoir masterpieces such as "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game" (1939). Of course, that's setting the bar awfully high. Regardless, "La bête humaine" is worth a recommendation for the train sequences alone, and just about any Renoir film still has to be considered essential cinema.