Friday, January 8, 2010

#324: La Bête Humaine

(Jean Renoir, 1938)

Despite its very contemporary roots as a realist melodrama and the fact that it was based on a novel by Emile Zola nearly a century before, Le Bête Humaine is primarily interesting to me because it looks forward to the noir of the future. The lead actress is the classic femme fatale, leaving the viewer unsure of just where her allegiance lies, pushing the protagonist towards self-destruction or murder, whichever comes first, and often both.

This was quite the surprise for 30s Renoir. After having seen Bodu Saved From Drowning, The Grand Illusion, and my favorite, the masterpiece The Rules of the Game, I assumed the film would follow similar themes of class and human nature. There is a bit of that here, but more than that there is a sense of the struggle of life.

The things I enjoyed in the film had less to do with the overall plot - which hinged upon a ridiculous notion that the protagonist had uncontrollable homicidal tendencies due to the alcoholism of his ancestors - and more to do with brief moments that were noir all the way. The best is undoubtedly the moment when Lantier goes to kill his lover's husband with a crowbar, shielded by shadows and trains, and he is unable to do it. The style and technique here would be repeated time and time again for the next fifty years. While this is by no means a classic film, it is these moments which continue to enhance Renoir's career in my eyes, as it quickly becomes apparent just why he is so well regarded.

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