La Bete Humaine (1938)

“When things go bad at home, you find other interests.”

Based on the Emile Zola novel, the film La Bete Humaine explores the dark impulses of human behaviour through its three main characters–train engineer, Jacques (Jean Gabin), stationmaster Roubaud (Fernard Ledoux), and his mis-matched young wife Severine (Simone Simon). When the film begins, Jacques’ train barrels into Le Havre on its regular run, but due to mechanical problems, he is forced to stay for several days. Meanwhile stationmaster Roubaud, offends a wealthy passenger, and asks his child-like wife Severine to contact her wealthy ‘uncle’ Monsieur Grandmorin. Grandmorin’s wealth, position, and influence with the railroad company will block the complaint against Roubaud. So Roubaud and Severine take the train to Paris so that she can curry favour from Grandmorin.

After Severine returns from her visit to Grandmorin’s mansion, Roubaud begins to question her relationship with her benefactor. It seems that Grandmorin has a terrible reputation for preying on women. Severine–who grew up in Grandmorin’s house–was the child of a maid there and an unknown father. Roubaud’s jealousy leads to doubt about his wife’s fidelity, and he questions just what she had to do to get this latest favour from her ‘uncle.’ Severine confesses that Grandmorin invited her to his country home, and Roubaud decides to murder Grandmorin using Severine as an accomplice. Roubaud imagines that this act of murder will bond them together forever.

It’s a quirk of fate that places Jacques in the vicinity of the murder, and he is the only witness. Roubaud uses Severine once more, but this time she’s supposed to befriend Jacques and see how much he knows, and how much he’s going to tell.

La Bete Humaine concentrates on the psychology of the three main characters. There are hints that Grandmorin abused Severine during her childhood, and that this has given her a strong distaste for sex. Jacques experiences dark shifts in mood during moments of arousal, so in the past, he’s tended to avoid women. Unfortunately, there’s not much explanation given for Jacques’ violence–except vague references to his “tainted blood.” There’s a subtle emphasis on the hierarchy of class in the film. Grandmorin preys on working class women, yet he goes unchallenged until his murder–an event that causes classes to close ranks.

When watching the film, one cannot avoid thinking of the fact that film noir’s origins are French. La Bete Humaine from director Jean Renoir has a very noir feel to it–and the fact that most of the action gravitates around noisy train stations somehow underscores the brutality of the human passions explored by the film. There’s a noir re-make of the film called Human Desire starring Gloria Grahame, and if you enjoy La Bete Humaine, or if you are a noir fan, I recommend it highly.

This criterion release of “La Bete Humaine” looks gorgeous. DVD extras include: a gallery of on-set photographs, an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, archival footage of director Jean Renoir, an introduction by Jean Renoir, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet with film criticism and photos. In French with English subtitles.

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