La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast)

December 10, 2009 at 10:44 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )


La Bete Humaine is a 1938 French film directed by Jean Renoir. Though many do not classify this film as a noir, it does have all the characteristics of a quintessential film noir. In fact, it is one of the very first examples of film noir, though not self-consciously so.  It was made a full two years before what is regarded by many as the first ever American film noir Stranger on the Third Floor.

La Bete Humaine is one of the many pairings of Renoir and the greatest French actor of all time, Jean Gabin. Gabin plays the protagonist, the troubled train engineer Jacques Lantier. The cast also includes the beautiful Simone Simon, playing Severine Roubaud, Colette Regis as Pecqueux and Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. The film also gives you a glimpse of Renoir showing off his acting chops. Renoir plays Cabuche, the man falsely charged with the murder of Grandmorin, a rich and influential older gentleman.

There are very few opening sequences in the history of film that are as breathtaking and memorable as the train footage that opens La Bete Humaine. Both Renoir and Gabin were fascinated by trains, in fact, both got their train engineering license and Gabin operated real passenger trains as part of his research for the role. The train itself is the center piece of the entire film.  

The station chief Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) is married to Severine (Simone Simon) and has to use the influence of her benefactor Grandmorin to get himself out of a jam, after he asserts is authority against a powerful official. Roubaud saves his job, but by doing so finds out that his wife had been a mistress of Grandmorin in the past and possibly still is. This he cannot take and forces Severine to come along to watch him kill Grandmorin.

Roubaud kills Grandmorin on a train and the only person to witness Roubaud and Severine come out of his car is Jacques (Gabin). Jacques is questioned by the police and denies seeing the couple because he is immediately smitten by the perceived innocence of Severine.

Jacques has problems of his own. He has these moods that come over him that he can’t control. Early on in the film, he almost strangles a childhood sweetheart of his before a train roaring by brings him out of the episode.

Jacques, of course, falls in love with Severine and she seems to fall in love with him, but it is hard to tell with her. She is too young and beautiful for her old and fat husband Roubaud who also has a jealousy complex and beats her when he feels the inclination.

Roubaud binds Severine to him through the murder of the Grandmorin, but the murder begins to wear on his conscious. He also knows that Severine is philandering with Jacques, but he seems to have lost interest in most everything, including her.

Jacques wants to run off with Severine, but she refuses, saying that Roubaud will turn her in and the only way out is if Jacques kills him. From this point on, the film only gets darker in spirit.

Elements of Noir

This film could be used in the classroom as a prime example of a film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting is prevalent throughout the film. Renoir takes a back seat to no one when it comes to the use of key light, shadows and contrasting light patterns to instill mood in a scene. Along with the look of the film, the story and character elements that you find in a noir are in abundance in La Bete Humaine.

If you are looking for a femme fatale, look no further than Severine. She makes every guy she knows fall in love with her and then attempts to bend them to her murderess will. She says she is in love, but it is hard to believe, because all she really cares about is her own interests.

The characters in La Bete Humaine are regular working class people, but that is common in noirs, Clash by Night is one of many American examples of working-class people as protagonists in a noir.

(Spoiler)

Jacques is a tortured soul who runs through life without the ability to control his own fortunes. Fate controls him, as it does most noir protagonists. He can’t kill Roubaud, who he desperately wants to, and then cannot control himself and kills Severine. Finally, flying along the tracks on his beloved train, he can’t take the guilt, he can’t take not having Severine, he can’t take not having control over his life: he ends his life. It doesn’t get much more noir than that.   

Recommendation

If you can handle the subtitles, La Bete Humaine is a great film for those interested in any genre. For film noir fans, it is a great early example of the genre. While Renoir was not trying to make a film noir, there was no such term at the time, he made one of the greats. The film is beautifully shot; you can watch it with the sound off and have an enjoyable experience simply through the stark images.

Jean Gabin is as good as it gets and you will not be able to take your eyes away from Simone Simon. The character actors are excellent, especially Colette Regis. This is truly one of the great Renoir films, and he made many good ones.

If you have never seen a Renoir film or a Gabin film, you should give them a shot. Gabin was a wonderful actor and Renoir is one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, time, and in any language. If you give his films a shot, you will find a whole new world of film that you never realized was out there waiting to be discovered.

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