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Based on the Emile Zola novel of the same name, you of course expect this film to channel the darker sides of man, and show his animal nature. The beginning sequence on the train is brilliant, with the awesome power, noise, and smoke really setting the tone. Unfortunately the rest of the film didn't live up to this beginning. There are issues that stem back to Zola himself, whose theories about the blood line of a family being poisoned by its ancestors were pseudo-scientific at best. The result is that it's hard to believe the violence that at times suddenly possesses the character of Lantier (Jean Gabin). Simone Simon is a treat to watch and suitably underhanded in her dealings with men, but there is something too cool - too lacking in real passion - about the movie as a whole. The two male performances - Gabin's and that of Fernand Ledoux, Simon's jealous husband - are flat. Zola believed that "love and death, possessing and killing, are the dark foundations of the human soul", and while all of these things are represented by director Jean Renoir, they don't always feel authentic.
Also, I don't mean to go off on a "the book was better than the movie" rant, particularly as the novel itself wasn't Zola's best work, but I would point out that one of the more memorable parts in it was the slow poisoning taking place in a house near a train crossing, and this was a story line that was one of those excised by Renoir. He is also sloppy about other parts of the novel, and when I read later that his screenplay was rushed and that when he started filming he hadn't read the novel in 25 years, I wasn't surprised. It's not horrible by any means, and in some of the train imagery you can see Renoir's influence on films like 1985's "Runaway Train" with Jon Voigt, but it fails to live up to its potential.
An exceptional film from an exceptional director. Every scene was compelling and significant, though I watched a bad copy of it, I was so drawn to the story I didn't care. A fascinating take on broken people, relationships, and culture. I highly recommend French and Italian films during this time period and right after WWII.
Not often I am disappointed with a French film. And it is so atmospheric, I am sure it would have got 5 stars when it was made in 1938. Just not for me tonight.
Banned in Australia by the Commonwealth Censor in 1938. I assume it is still banned in 2014, because I am unable to buy a copy of this dark movie, even if I try to order it from outside Australia. I have watched it from start to finish, because I am fascinated by railways, and the relevant scenes are evocative, true to life, and historic. The story line is deeply disturbing, but nonetheless no worse than Love the Proper Stranger or Oklahoma.
Dopo il suo capolavoro La grande illusione, Renoir firma questo Drama espressionista ambientato tra Parigi e Le Havre, sul tragico triangolo amoroso tra una coppia di coniugi composta da un funzionario della stazione di Havre, la giovane e affascinante moglie Séverine, ed il macchinista Jacques Lantier. Definita da un romanticismo che evoca suggestioni vicine all'influenza naturalista della letteratura e dell'arte visiva, l'opera è caratterizzata da una struttura narrativa pregna di forti elementi allegorici, quali riescono, grazie all'efficacia di immagini emblematiche nel preventivare situazioni e risvolti infausti, e piani sequenza ipnotici, a generare un pathos che, questa volta, mostra senza tabù o censure quelle apprensioni pessimiste che tormentavano la classe proletaria in un momento della storia in cui, da lì a poco, sarebbero state messe a dura prova le convinzioni e le ideologie di questa problematica casta sociale. Il risentimento da parte di Lantier (un impeccabile Gabin) di non poter uscire dai suoi schemi "ereditari" (lui stesso afferma di essere il discendente di una famiglia di alcolisti) lo porterà a compiere quegli istinti omicidi manifestati verso le sue amanti, spesso paradossalmente attratte proprio dalla sua apparente condizione di serenità ed autocontrollo; un onesto lavoratore che si ritrova a fare i conti con l'arroganza del ceto aristocratico, come per il suo collega Roubaud, anche lui ormai stanco di una vita "ordinaria" e constantemente sull'orlo paranoico di una crisi di nervi (triste ma significativa la scena in cui ruba dei soldi dal portafoglio dell'amante della moglie, ucciso con la complicità di quest'ultima, e verso cui, in un primo momento, aveva promesso a sé stesso di non impossessarsi dei suoi averi; promessa che, come visto, durerà ben poco). Questi sentimenti di frustazione e collera porteranno i due protagonisti a quei comportamenti violenti ed pericolosamente impulsivi quali li identificheranno come "bestie umane" (dal titolo del romanzo d'ispirazione di Zola): ad affliggere gli animi inquieti di Jacques e Roubaud, c'è, appunto, Séverine: femme fatale che si può rivelare un'arma a doppio taglio; anche lei, infatti, decisa ad entrare nel mondo della piccola borghesia con tutti i compromessi possibili, persino brutali (sebbene il personaggio, in sé, non si possa considerare esattamente "malvagio"). Il destino dei tre sciagurati non potrà che essere nefasto. Nonostante il ritmo lento della trama, Renoir dirige eccellentemente i ruoli di Gabin, Ledoux, e Simon con una maniera autentica che gli permette di rappresentare una suspense della messa in scena giocata sul continuo alterco tra buon costume e violazione delle regole.
Brilliantly directed by Jean Renoir, La Bete Humaine is filled with wonderful performances and expert composition.
Having watched Fritz Lang's remake first (Human Desire, 1953) several years ago, I couldn't help but think of Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, and Broderick Crawford in the key roles while watching Renoir's original version of the Emile Zola story. Jean Gabin is one of my favorites but somehow Glenn Ford gets more of the noir sleaze into his performance (or so I recall now). Of course, it is great to see Renoir himself acting (as a buffoon who takes the fall for the first murder) and his mise en scene and command of his actors is masterful as usual. But this just doesn't reach the levels of his other masterpieces (nor is it dark enough, despite the subject matter, which sees a man encouraging his wife to obtain a favor for him from her "godfather" and then murdering him with her complicity when he realizes what she did to obtain the favor; Gabin witnesses the murder and falls in love with the wife).
Gabin's performance is the big draw here, emphasizing one of the ways in which humans are trapped by their natures.
Amazing film, one of the first films that really open my eyes as a young child (9 years old). I remember the feeling when we could hear the train passing by, the face of Jean Gabin, the psychological intensity. A must must see. On my top 10 (maybe being a little bit bias).
An excellent Film Noir from french master Jean Renoir. Definitely worth checking out!