The opening minutes of La bête humaine (1938) are a bracing plunge into the materiality of the world. The flames of a locomotive’s furnace, the engineer and stoker utterly absorbed in their work, the landscape speeding by, as seen from the moving train: we have the sensation not of observing reality but of being caught up in it, a sensation that is prolonged as we experience, as if for the first time, the shock of suddenly emerging from a tunnel, a moment before pulling into the geometric splendors of an immense rail yard. Forty years after the invention of movies, Jean Renoir managed to re-create the astonishment that greeted the 1898 Lumière movie of a train arriving in a station. La bête humaine is often described as an exemplar of the pessimistic poetic realism of the thirties in France, and as a precursor of forties film noir, but it begins on a note of heroic exhilaration, in which the natural world and the power of technology are wedded through the closely coordinated labor—effected through glances and sign language—of two men.
The speed of the train establishes the relentless rhythm that characterizes the whole film. Renoir has taken a convoluted and sometimes ponderous Émile Zola novel and reduced it to a series of quick sketches. The cadence is of work and of the all-too-brief moments stolen from work. It is a film of restless transitions, where everybody seems to be forever turning a door handle or walking downstairs or leaning forward to look out the window; one remembers Séverine (Simone Simon) being welcomed into the study of her lecherous godfather, while the door is discreetly closed behind her, or a desperate Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) slipping out of the dance hall unnoticed by the dancers, lost in their enjoyment. Murders and seductions occur offscreen; we see the moments before and after. The long passages of emotional description in the Zola are translated into brief exchanges of glances, or the absence of such exchanges: the bruising aftermath of a wife’s accidental confession is rendered in the way Séverine and Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) can’t stand to look each other in the eyes.
Renoir’s script doesn’t merely condense the source novel; it drastically changes its plot and narrows its scope. In the Zola, the intrigue involving the Roubaud-Séverine-Lantier triangle is only one element in more complex intrigue, encompassing, among other episodes, the slow poisoning of Flore’s mother for her inheritance; Flore’s derailment of Lantier’s train, in an attempt to kill him and Séverine; and Flore’s subsequent suicide. The investigation into the murder on the train is depicted, in elaborate detail, as an exercise in political maneuvering and judicial corruption. In the novel’s annihilating climax, Lantier and his friend Pecqueux fall to their death while fighting over their shared mistress, leaving a driverless train full of troops bound for the front racing toward destruction. Renoir’s film eliminates altogether this vision of approaching cataclysm, a symbolic representation of the utterly corrupt France of the 1860s hurtling toward the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. In fact, the France of 1938 was closer to its own debacle than Renoir could have known, but the despair he evokes in La bête humaine pertains more to individuals than to the society at large.
Quite aside from plot details, Renoir avoids the novel’s clinically detached, unwaveringly depressing tone. His approach to his characters could not be more different from Zola’s, to such an extent that behavior that makes perfect sense in the novel can seem arbitrary in the film. Zola’s crushing determinism, the vision of inescapable degeneration that informs the whole “Rougon-Macquart” cycle of interrelated novels, of which La bête humaine forms a part, is reduced to a quotation in an introductory title card, a perfunctory nod in the direction of the grand novelistic schema that has otherwise been abandoned. While Zola’s workers are a promiscuous, drunken, brutal, and resentful bunch, Renoir is alert to fitful stabs at affection and camaraderie. By both temperament and politics, the director would have been inclined to resist the novelist’s portrait of the working class as disease-ridden and driven by compulsion.
As in The Rules of the Game, the masterpiece that Renoir made the following year, everybody has their reasons; even the murderously jealous husband, Roubaud, is a figure more pathetic than evil. To watch him go, in a single scene, from innocent delight to sudden suspicion, from anguished shame to uncontrollable rage, is to perceive him as pure victim. The extraordinary performances of Ledoux, Gabin, and Simon—a femme fatale as fragile as she is irresistible—make entirely believable a setup that might otherwise seem schematic. We can even (almost) accept the idea—a remnant of Zola’s pseudo-scientific notions about the corruption of French society by inherited vice—that the openhearted Lantier is afflicted with hereditary homicidal tendencies because of his alcoholic ancestors. (The acting of the entire cast is remarkably understated, except, oddly enough, for the director’s own, somewhat theatrical turn, as the wrongly accused ex-convict Cabuche.)
Released as Europe careened toward disaster, and as France was caught between the foundering of popular front coalition politics, on the left, and the surging of fascist sympathies, on the right, La bête humaine strikes a tone somewhere between the fatality that hangs over its central characters and the make-the-best-of-it spirit embodied in Julien Carette’s marvelous performance as Lantier’s stoker, Pecqueux. Carette, a veteran of the French music hall, becomes for Renoir a living embodiment of the most durable and unmawkish national qualities: he is humorous, devoid of pomposity, and determined to survive. The bond of affection between the two workers, rooted in a common sense of on-the-job responsibility, is the bass figure laying out a steady counterpoint to the wrenching emotional disasters of the doomed triangle of husband, wife, and lover. An underlying optimism, sustained against all odds, surfaces as well in Lantier’s lyrical speech to Séverine about the small pleasures of an engineer’s life, an interpolation of Renoir’s that is far more serene in mood than anything in Zola’s novel.Also wholly original is the crucial dance hall scene, with its comic details and entrancing stream of music, culminating in a vaudeville turn just as the plot itself is culminating in murder. Rather than suggesting bitter irony, the contrast between commonplace amusement and private agony restores a sense of balance to a world knocked out of kilter by deranged desire. Even in La bête humaine, perhaps the darkest of his films, Renoir could not resist admitting a consoling burst of theatricality—even if it’s just a silly singer performing a silly song—into the heart of an annihilating melodrama.
What is finally most haunting in this movie are the faces: the sorrowful frowns of Ledoux, as he walks somnambulistically through the wreckage of his life; the flickering expressions of Simon, tender and manipulative and shattered by turns; the almost unreadable private sorrow buried somewhere deep in the face of Gabin. (Renoir remarked in his autobiography, My Life in Films, that “Gabin could express the most violent emotion with a mere quiver of his impassive face.”) The development of the drama could be summed up in a series of ten or fifteen pivotal close-ups. But the genius of Jean Renoir is to situate the isolated torments of his central characters in a fully alive world of places and things. If we did not so fully accept the reality of the rail yards and boardinghouses and dance halls, the constant coming and going on platforms and in hallways, the hum and random bustle persisting even in the midst of catastrophe, we could hardly be so moved by the unsought and undeserved destruction visited on the movie’s three hapless protagonists.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s writings on film can be found in The Phantom Empire and Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle. His other books include Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, Dream Time, The Browser’s Ecstasy, and, most recently, Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears.