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France 1938
Directed by
Jean Renoir
104 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Bete Humaine, La

Adapted by Renoir from a novel by Émile Zola, La Bête Humaine , the 17th in a cycle of 20 novels, jettisons Zola’s socio-political canvas and shifts the story from the 1860s to then modern times to create a film that with its mix of sex, murder and madness in content is reminiscent of Hollywood noir classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

The story concerns a railway engine driver, Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), and his relationship with the wife, Séverine (Simone Simon), of the assistant station-master (Fernand Ledoux). Lantier suffers from an impulse to kill when he is sexually aroused. Roubaud is insanely jealous of his pretty wife and kills the aristocrat Grand-Morin who seduced her when she was young and makes Séverine his accomplice in order to bind her to him. Lantier knows this but because he is in love with Séverine, doesn’t  tell the police. She then tries to get him to kill Roubaud but he is unable to bring himself to do it. He eventually finds the resolve but his madness overtakes him. 

Yes, it’s a heady mix of dysfunctional behaviour but Renoir gives it a very different treatment from the typical Hollywood sex and violence pot-boiler approach, focussing more on the social fabric to which his characters belong. With the assistance of cinematographer, Curt Courant, and honouring Zola’s original realist intent he evokes the work-a-day world of the characters (Roubaud’s house where a good deal of the action takes place is within the railway yard). The film opens with a nearly five minute long dialogue-less sequence of Lantier and his fireman, Pecqueux (Julien Carette), driving their engine to the Le Havre station before settling into another lenghty section showing the men in their living quarters. It is hard to think of another film that recreates the feel of the life of railway men so well, not simply as dressing but as an integral part of the narrative. Indeed Renoir’s atmospheric visual style (he was working with many regulars of his 1930s films) informs the entire film) holding together what a times seems to be a rather superficially unfolding narrative as it lurches through the story (the arrest of Cabuche, played by the director, for the murder of Grand-Morin is simply forgotten about and Roubaud largely disappears from the film).

Gabin is, as always a compelling presence and compensates for the film's at times superficial characterisations (Simon's Séverine is particularly weak in this respect whilst Lantier's attacks of insanity simply come out of nowhere. It is no surprise that the film was remade in Hollywood in 1953 by Fritz Lang as Human Desire.

DVD Extras: La Bête Humaine – Filming Zola – an insert essay by James Leahy; Original Theatrical trailer.

Available from: Madman




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