On August 14, 1931, a pretty twenty-three-year old blond actress named Janie Marèse was tragically killed in a car crash on a road near Saint-Tropez. She had only recently begun a successful career onstage and in film. At the wheel was Georges Flamant (he survived), her costar in La chienne—and lover—who, in a terrible irony, had bought the car with his wages from Jean Renoir’s film. When La chienne was released in Paris a few months later, critics did not fail to point out the parallel between the actress’s fictional and real deaths, the film “bringing to the screen her laughter from beyond the grave” (Le Figaro).
Based on a best-selling novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, La chienne (The Bitch) is the story of Legrand (Michel Simon), a downtrodden clerk at a Parisian hosiery firm who is also an amateur painter. Unhappy in a loveless marriage to Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet), he falls for Lulu (Marèse), a young prostitute. Lulu and her pimp, Dédé (Flamant), set out to exploit Legrand, pocketing the money from the sale of his paintings. When Adèle’s first husband, Godard (Roger Gaillard), presumed dead in the war, suddenly reappears, Legrand gladly leaves her, only to discover that Lulu loves Dédé and that he has been duped. In a fit of rage, he kills her and lets Dédé take the blame, sending him to the guillotine. Legrand and Godard are reunited as tramps on the streets of Paris. As Renoir warns the spectator in the Guignol puppet show that opens the film, this is “neither a drama nor a comedy.” Whether, as the puppet goes on to say, “it contains no moral message” remains to be seen.
La chienne was Jean Renoir’s second sound film. His first, On purge bébé, an adaptation of a Georges Feydeau farce, had been made to prove to producers, aware of his patchy record in the silent era, that he could bring in a successful film under budget—which he did. This helped convince the producing duo Pierre Braunberger and Roger Richebé to finance La chienne. One of Renoir’s aims was to showcase his wife, Catherine Hessling, the star of several of his silent films, as Lulu. His compliance with the producers’ insistence on Marèse (sometimes spelled “Marèze”) hastened the breakup of his already ailing marriage.
Marèse’s casting proved momentous for another reason. Various sources attest that Renoir and Braunberger encouraged an affair between Marèse and Flamant to promote greater realism in their performances—all too successfully, as it turns out, especially as Simon also fell for her, creating offscreen tensions that matched those on-screen. But Renoir’s legendary difficulties in making La chienne went further. He insisted on direct sound, despite the primitive state of the technology, and clashed with the producers over the editing. Rumors arose that Hungarian filmmaker Paul Fejos was asked to reedit Renoir’s “disastrous” first version. Renoir’s retrospective account in his autobiography, My Life and My Films (1974), reprised by many critics since, denies this, presenting himself as the intransigent artist standing up to the demands of crass producers. Pascal Mérigeau’s authoritative 2012 biography, Jean Renoir, helps clarify the extent to which Renoir willfully obscured the editing help he received. The full truth may never be known. Still, as Mérigeau puts it, “The miracle is that La chienne, probably edited by Renoir and Marguerite, then by Denise Batcheff under Paul Fejos’s direction, became the masterpiece that we know.” (Marguerite Renoir was the filmmaker’s partner at the time; she took his name although they were never married.) Similarly, Renoir’s entertaining accounts of a riotously hostile reception for his film, including viewers’ being “warned” by exhibitors and critics against watching it, turn out to be untrue. While a few conservative voices deplored the “immorality” of the story, La chienne did sufficiently well in provincial cities to be released in Paris in late November 1931, to positive reviews.
Notwithstanding the technical difficulties, Renoir had clearly mastered the new medium of sound cinema. La chienne’s vision of Paris, with street cinematography that prefigures the noir vision of poetic realism and the deep exploration of interior space that would become the filmmaker’s trademark, is enhanced by a complexly layered and unusually realistic use of sound.
La chienne takes place mostly around Montmartre, an iconic area combining working-class identity with the world of entertainment. In the opening scene, where Legrand and his colleagues celebrate in a restaurant, we see the Moulin Rouge through a window. Later, Legrand meets Lulu in a nocturnal cityscape that is familiar from the photographs of Brassaï and the films of René Clair and Julien Duvivier, among others: all steps, gleaming cobbles, peeling posters on old buildings, and expressionistic pools of light cast by street lamps. The explosive encounter of bourgeois, pimp, and prostitute that sets up the narrative was a familiar, almost clichéd, vignette from populist film, literature, and song. But Renoir channeled it through his own developing stylistic concerns, starting with the use of location shooting for daytime street scenes, such as those outside Lulu’s new apartment and those with the tramps at the end.
The filmmaker’s spatial fluidity through long takes and depth of field also begins to appear here, especially in Legrand’s flat. Our first daytime vision of the apartment is exemplary: a one-minute-long take starts on him working on a self-portrait, then tracks back to reveal a courtyard through the open window and, across it, another open window, through which we see a little girl singing and talking to her mother; the camera tracks left to pick up Adèle coming in, and then right to follow her past Legrand, still painting. Later, a longer take unobtrusively follows Legrand, first seen shaving at the window, to a wardrobe, from which he pockets some of Adèle’s hidden money, then back to the window, now looking into a room on another side of the courtyard, where the same little girl is playing the piano. In the process, we absorb a wealth of sociological detail from the decor (wallpaper, furniture, objects, clothes), and the parallel lives in the building are economically suggested through camera movement, music, and ambient sound.
It seems that Renoir’s insistence on direct sound paid off. The film is replete with evocative sounds that produce an aural density matching the visual depth, practically unknown in French cinema at the time: dancers’ feet, cars, footsteps, water flowing into a gutter, rain, conversations from across the courtyard, clocks, bells, or the ominous grating noise of Lulu’s paper cutter (with which Legrand will kill her). Sociological authenticity is created through the juxtaposition of accents: Legrand’s haltingly delivered educated French contrasts violently with Dédé’s swaggering deployment of vulgar slang, placing the two men at opposite poles in terms of society and masculinity. Along with them, police officer, judge, prostitute, art dealer, and concierge are also precisely mapped through their voices. Indeed, this vocal coding contributes to Dédé’s downfall and Legrand’s escape, betraying the class bias of French justice.
In its perceptive rendering of class differences, La chienne also inaugurates Renoir’s great era as the filmic chronicler of French society. While his silent films had not entirely eschewed realistic settings, their varied and somewhat eccentric forms veered between avant-garde experiment and melodrama. With sound cinema, Renoir shifted to greater social awareness, which would later in the decade mesh with his left-wing, Popular Front sympathies. After La chienne’s office clerks, he filmed, among others, migrant workers in the south (Toni, 1934), Parisian laundry workers (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), train drivers (La bête humaine, 1938), and the aristocrats of The Rules of the Game (1939). Other films, such as The Lower Depths (1936), Grand Illusion (1937), and the historical La Marseillaise (1938), took as their subject or background the clash between rich and poor.
The 1930s films are also characterized by an interest in popular culture, and here too La chienne, in which music and song play a prominent role, is premonitory. The little girl’s “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,” an old children’s song, foretells the return of “Sergeant” Godard, but the song also reminds us that Legrand did not fight in the war (as Adèle keeps reproaching him). Music as counterpoint comes to a climax in the most famous scene, that of Lulu’s murder. Renoir cuts back and forth between her flat, where Legrand begs her not to leave him, only to discover her venality and merciless mockery, and the street below, where a singer, a violinist, and a guitar player give a rendition of the classic 1895 song “La sérénade du pavé” (Sidewalk Serenade), made famous by the chanteuse Eugénie Buffet. The number provides aural continuity against the visual fragmentation created by the crosscutting between Lulu’s flat and the crowd assembled to listen, and several ellipses—including, crucially, of the murder itself. It is significant that, rather than the usual female chanteuse réaliste, here a man sings, reinforcing identification with Legrand—the singer, like him, pleads with a beautiful woman, while his collecting coins from the ground foreshadows Legrand as a tramp performing the same gesture at the end of the film.
Legrand’s slide from petit bourgeois to tramp in La chienne would signify for most filmmakers unalloyed downfall. Not so for Renoir, for whom the tramp, the marginal figure, represented an idealized vision of bohemian freedom. This is a vision he gave full expression in his next film with Michel Simon, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and that he pursued in the vagrant Cabuche, whom he himself plays, in La bête humaine, as well as in Marceau the poacher, to whom the aristocratic La Chesnaye shows more indulgence than to his own gamekeeper, in The Rules of the Game. It is no accident that when we see Legrand in his office he is literally in a cage (he works as a cashier) or that, at home and in Lulu’s flat, he is frequently framed within frames; or that, by contrast, the ending takes place in the open air. Legrand’s feeling of liberation is obvious—and far from the fate of his counterpart in Fritz Lang’s 1945 remake, Scarlet Street, who goes insane.
The lack of conventional morality, the cynicism, of La chienne (announced by Guignol) thus finds its greatest expression in the denouement: Legrand the murderer escapes scot-free (even making a joke of it), and Godard’s theft of another soldier’s identity remains unpunished. Dédé’s death sentence for a murder he did not commit is a form of poetic justice, given his vice-laden life and brutal treatment of Lulu, yet the last shot of him before the guillotine, his dignified face beautifully bathed in light, hints at some sort of redemption.
No such forgiveness is conferred on Adèle or Lulu, who are both dead by the end of the film. Neither woman in La chienne seems to follow Renoir’s precept of avoiding totally negative characters, as famously voiced by Octave in The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Later in the decade, Renoir would offer more complex and sympathetic—if not immune from patriarchal stereotyping—portrayals of women, such as Séverine (Simone Simon) in La bête humaine, Christine (Nora Gregor) in The Rules of the Game, and especially the wonderful Valentine (Florelle) in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. But Adèle has no saving grace, a point reinforced by Bérubet’s one-note performance of theatrical exaggeration, which underlines her character’s repressive, utterly unforgiving persona, further emphasized by its juxtaposition with the brilliantly subtle Michel Simon. Adèle’s death, moreover, enables the male bonding between Legrand and Godard.
Marèse’s “vulgar” performance is also one-sided. Renoir made the middle-class actress adopt a working-class diction, which may have contributed to her unsubtle delivery, but in any case her characterization makes empathy difficult: Lulu is presented as pure masochist—the worse Dédé treats her, the more adoringly submissive she is. Adèle conforms to the boulevard theater vision of the shrew, Lulu to the misogynist archetype of the prostitute in thrall to her pimp, a mythologizing of female submission that was widespread in populist literature and song. She has no subjectivity, as symbolized by her being renamed “Clara Wood,” the fictitious author of the paintings.
If Clara Wood is an invention, painting has a real symbolic weight in the film. Throughout Renoir’s life, the shadow of his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was inescapable both in and out of his films. Beyond the biographical connection, his films display a persistent interest in the figure of the artist, culminating in his 1930s work with his performance of Octave, the “failed” musician of The Rules of the Game in awe of a brilliant father figure. La chienne, in which art plays a crucial role, is no exception. Painting for Legrand provides a vital escape: from his boring job, from his colleagues’ mockery, and from Adèle, who loudly disapproves of his “useless” hobby. When he tells Lulu that he is a painter, he gives himself a fantasized social identity, but one that is psychologically true: the most prominent painting is a sad self-portrait that, as film scholar Charles Musser has pointed out, recalls the self-portrait reproduced in Renoir’s book about his father. The false identity becomes literally true when Dédé starts selling the paintings. In showing Dédé and Lulu so at ease in the art-dealing world, Renoir mischievously satirizes that world. But Legrand the embattled artist also comments, in a more serious register, on Renoir’s relationship to his father. Legrand’s fate, robbed of the proceeds of his now valuable works, could be seen as symbolic punishment for the director, who earlier had sold some of his father’s paintings to finance his films. In the last scene, Legrand gazes wistfully at an art gallery window that displays a Renoir bathing nude—plausibly, as the scene was shot in front of Bernheim-Jeune on avenue Matignon, a dealer of Renoir’s works.
Combining social observation, visual brilliance, and sound innovation, Renoir in La chienne turned an archetypal story of adultery (as Guignol says, “The three leads are He, She, and the Other Guy—as always”) into a modern masterpiece. La chienne was the first in the string of extraordinary films—including The Crime of Monsieur Lange, Grand Illusion, La bête humaine, and The Rules of the Game—that made Renoir the undisputed master of 1930s French cinema.