A year after La grande illusion and a year before La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), Jean Renoir made the lesser-known but scintillating La bête humaine (The Human Beast). Based on the Emile Zola novel, La bête humaine concerns the torrid turns in the course of three individuals connected to the French railroad industry. As such, the train itself becomes a fourth character, one which we ride into the picture in one of Renoir's virtuoso shots, after emerging from the fire of the engine.
Engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is said to be "married to a locomotive," and we share their seductive ride through under bridges and through tunnels, through nature to civilization in the film's opening moments. Lantier has an easygoing understanding with the train and his day-in, day-out co-worker Pecqueux (Julien Carette), but whenever Lantier disembarks, he is vaguely disaffected. He cannot reconcile his sexual feelings for childhood friend Flore (Blanchette Brunoy), as he cannot control violent spells that well up from his heredity. "I feel like I'm paying for all those fathers and grandfathers who drank," he says of his "illness." "All those generations of drunkards who poisoned my blood and saddled me with this madness."
Meanwhile, the uneasy married couple of Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and Séverine (Simone Simon of Cat People) explodes when railway manager Roubaud learns that his wife has submitted repeatedly to the advances of her lascivious godfather. The revelation is the prelude to a daisy chain of crimes of passion, justified by seductive lies, of the kind people want so badly to believe. Fate, as represented by the inexorable rhythms of a railway and the unchanging path of its train tracks, propels the plot; in a memorable party scene, Renoir lingers on a bandleader conducting his charges—he, too, represents the precise guidance of a fatalistic force.
Renoir's mastery is evident in every frame. From one perspective, La bête humaine exemplifies European poetic realism in its highly skilled location production value and exceptional camera operation (much of it by Claude Renoir, Jean's nephew). On the other hand, as the florid plot anticipates film noir, Renoir teases out expressionistic touches (a roaring train timed to pass during one of Lantier's spells), and intensifies moments of melodrama with concrete symbolism or by painting a vertiginous surreality into certain backgrounds: observe, for example, what Renoir does with the patently unrealistic park setting of Séverine's first illicit appointment with Lantier.
The acting is superb, with Renoir's favored lead Gabin, the stunning Simon, and the dowdy Ledoux delivering brilliantly subtle but powerfully magnetic performances. Renoir inserts himself into the film as the humorously rough-edged, wrong-man suspect Cabuche, but it's his expertise behind the camera—and his driving curiosity for human constructs and human nature—that elevate La bête humaine to an unforgettable filmic experience.
Another outstanding Criterion special edition, La bête humaine comes with an illuminating 1967 introduction by director Jean Renoir (6:18); a pleasantly academic 2004 Peter Bogdanovich interview (11:20); an excerpt from the 1968 television program Adapter Zola (24:00) with a short Renoir interview and a spirited roundtable discussion involving Zola scholar Henri Mitterand, film critic Jean Collet, and Gervaise screenwriter Pierre Bost; "Renoir directs Simone Simon" (7:00), a 1957 TV segment in which the pair recreate the shooting of a dramatic close-up; a trailer (3:02) that includes contemporaneous critical acclaim for the film; and a 28-image gallery with on-set photos and promotional art.
As always, Criterion also includes a beautifully designed booklet, in this case 38 pages that include a chapter listing, credits, and three terrific reflections on the film: "Renoir On and Off the Rails," by Geoffrey O'Brien; "The Beauty of the Beast" by Ginette Vincendeau (reprinted from Sight and Sound); and "The Human Beast," an excerpt from production designer Eugène Lourié's autobiography My Work in Films.
Most importantly, Criterion gives its sterling treatment to the presentation of the 1938 film. Aside from a few frame jumps in the print, this is an exceptional transfer created from the best elements and digitally dusted by the MTI Digital Restoration system; the sound has likewise been maximized by Criterion's technicians. Given that the transfer makes use of both a 35mm fine-grain master positive and a 35mm theatrical print (to create the most complete version possible), it's safe to say that the film isn't likely to look better anywhere else.
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