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La Bête Humaine., France 1938

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2017

 

The novel is part of Émile Zola’s great fictional series, Les Rougon-Macquart. This chain of novels takes its title from the two families who are the subject of the stories. The Rougons are bourgeois in the French sense, what in the UK is colloquially refereed to as upper middle class. The Macquarts are rural poor and become urban working class. The stories are set in the second Empire; that fairly reactionary regime lorded over by Louis-Napoleon. Zola’s approach belongs to the new naturalism of the later nineteenth century, very detailed and realistic portrayals, which the author equated with the work of experimental scientists.  Zola’s political stance tended towards socialism, but he was also strongly influenced by recent environmental and hereditary studies.

These conflicting factors can be seen at work in La Bête Humaine. The novel has very detailed and convincing passages on the industry and its workers. One fine chapter, which has not made it into any of the film adaptations that I have seen, recounts a hazardous and arduous train journey through snow and blizzards. Many of the motivations of the characters arise from the social relations in which they are trapped. Yet the central character, Jacques Lantier, [the offspring of the two main protagonists in L’Assommoir], is in the grip of a violent obsession, which the author attributes to genetic factors, ‘and bad blood’.

Film Adaptations.

As might be expected Zola has been a popular source for film versions. L’Assommoir appears to have provided the basis for a 1902 short film. And there were other early adaptations by filmmaker as prominent as D. W. Griffith [A Drunkard’s Reformation 1909] and Victor Sjöström [Germinal, 1913]. The 1913 French adaptation of the same novel by Albert Capellani runs for 147 minutes. It is distinguished by its use of actual locations and a strong identification with the striking miners. It struck me as more political than the Zola original.

In 1918 there was a silent version of La Bête Humaine. And in the 1920s another Germinal, and versions of Nana, Therese Raquin and L’Argent. With the arrival of sound further film versions of some of these novels were produced. And from the 1930s until the present day Zola remains a popular source, with a new Germinal in the 1990s and Nana in 2002. The most recent versions of La Bête Humaine appear to have been in the 1950s.

1930s.

Despite the International dominance of Hollywood French film was relatively successful in this period, [more so than British film]. In the late 1930s there were a series of films that were successful at the domestic box office and garnered high praise from critics. A key cycle of films was known as Poetic Realism. This cycle shared some characteristics with the later Hollywood film noir.  The settings were associated with criminality, and the use of light and shadow created a world of darkness and danger. Two key filmmakers in this cycle were the scriptwriter Jacques Prévert and the director Marcel Carné. One of their finest collaborations is Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). An army deserter arrives in Le Havre. He is adopted by a stray dog, falls in love with an orphan girl, and crosses the leader of a local criminal gang. The tragic ending is clearly foreshadowed in the settings, all shadows and mist. The star is Jean Gabin. He provides a strong sense of romantic fatalism, which characterised this and the other poetic realist films. The endings are uniformly tragic, unlike the Hollywood film noir, where the films sometimes lead to death [e.g. Double Indemnity, 1944] but just as often the hero wins through [On Dangerous Ground, 1951].  In the Quai des Brumes the hero is led on by a fatal romance, but the heroine is romantic. In French noir there tends to be less emphasis on the heroine as duplicitous and dangerous, again different from the femme fatale in film noir.

‘Quai des brumes’

Jean Renoir

Renoir is one of the most renowned film directors in French Cinema, indeed across World Cinema. His father was the famous Impressionist painter. The young Jean entered French filmmaking in the 1920s, still the era of silent films. One of his early films was an adaptation of Zola’s novel Nana [1926]. A slum girl rises to become a demimondaine [a woman outside respectable society]. I feel that the film fails because Catherine Hessling [who plays Nana] does not bring the character alive or make her believable.

In the sound era Renoir directed a film version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is far closer to the book than the Hollywood version, both in plot and in its view of Emma Bovary. However, it suffered because the producers did not allow Renoir to make the full versions that he desired. One important film of his in this period is Toni [1935]. A story set among Italian migrants, the film was an early example of location filming and the use of non-professionals. It was an important influence on the later Italian neo-realist movement.

Like many artists and intellectuals Renoir was extremely sympathetic to the Popular Front, which won the French elections in 1936. He directed La Marseillaise, a film about the original revolutionary volunteers from Marseilles in 1789. It was partly funded by trade unions and subscriptions. Prior to this he had also made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [1935), partly a thriller, it is set in a workers print co-operative. This is one of his finest films and has a powerful sense of community and co-operation.

The overt class-conscious themes in these films weaken in the late 1930s. La Bête Humaine, whilst it has a strong sense of industry and the world of work has little evidence of co-operation. In fact it shares the pessimism that seemed so central to the poetic realist cycle. It is a pessimism that is one powerful strand in his later masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu (1939). That film so angered audiences that the prints were cut, then withdrawn and finally banned. The film was later restored in the 1950s and gained a reputation as one of the all-time great films. It is worth noting that both La Bête Humaine  and La Regle du Jeu were both banned under the German occupation.

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). France 1938.

Director Jean Renoir Scenario Jean Renoir based on the novel by Zola Photography Curt Courant Art Direction Eugène Lourié Music Joseph Kosma Editor Marguer­ite Renoir. Cast Jean Gabin, Julien Car­ette, Fernand Ledoux, Jean Renoir, Si­mone Simon, Jenny Hélia, Blanchette Brunoy. Production Paris Films. 99 minutes. Black and white.

“Lantier (Gabin), a railway mechanic and hereditary alcoholic, is pushed into crime. He becomes the lover of Séverine (Simon), who wants him to kill her hus­band, Roubaud (Ledoux), himself a criminal, but he ends by strangling her.

Renoir, after the unmerited failure of La Maseillaise (1937), agreed to make this film because Gabin very much wanted to play a railway worker. He had less than vague memories of the novel, which is far from being one of Zola’s best, and is one in which the three pro­tagonists are modern Atridae [classical Greek reference], whose heredity condemned them to worse crimes. With some hesitation he rejected an adaptation by Roger Martin Du Gard that concluded with the declaration of war in August 1914, and finally himself wrote a scenario that mainly retained “a love story of the railroads” from the ori­ginal novel.

The opening sequence showing, in a doc­umentary style, the Paris-Le Havre run seen from a train, is a masterpiece of editing and perfect simplicity. It is comparable to another sequence, less impressionistic but still very beautiful, showing the life of the migrant railway workers. In this way, Renoir depicted Lantier’s social milieu by showing him at work. His impulse to murder is power­fully but quietly expressed in the brief scene showing his desire to kill a woman (Brunoy) who had given herself to him while a train was passing. Later, the drama becomes more involved and three sequences are equally admirable: the killing committed by Roubaud in an ex­press; the attempt to kill him in the noc­turnal setting of the railway tracks; the final strangling of Séverine, intercut with a railway workers’ fair, while a voice on the soundtrack sings a turn-of-the-­century ballad.

“I try to discover the unity of action before considering the unity of place and time,” wrote Renoir. La Bête Humaine is far superior to La Grande Illusion and was far from being a commercial failure. [It apparently did well internationally including in the USA. There it was one important influence on the film noir cycle]. However, some critical attacks hampered its success. M. Vinel (Rebatet), though he did not deny the qualities of the film, set the pattern in L’Action Fran­çaise: “In politics, Renoir is out of the same Jewish-Democratic lineage as Zola. We hope we will not see him again in the miry rut of the class cinema.”

The acting is of exceptional quality. It is one of Gabin’s great roles and Carette responds intelligently to his performance. Simone Simon is a Séverine of tragic proportions, while Ledoux, as the callous Roubaud, is remarkable.” (Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films, 1965, translated by Peter Morris).

Renoir on La Bête Humaine

“Those first-hand railway shots were in any case highly dangerous. The State Railways had lent us ten kilometres of track on which we could run and stop the train as we pleased. We hitched a platform truck, carrying the lighting generator, to the locomotive, and behind this an ordinary coach which served as a make-up and rest-room for the actors between scenes. When I decided to shoot with these hindrances I encountered lively opposition. It was pointed out to me that mock-ups had been perfected to the point where it was impossible to tell them from first-hand shooting. But I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of ges­tures.

The cameramen were Curt Courant and my nephew, Claude Renoir. Curt Courant was a skinny little man, a real featherweight. He was always in danger of being carried off by the wind which blew like the devil through that rushing studio and more than once I had to grab hold of him to prevent him being swept away. Claude had attached a small platform to the side of the locomotive which he occupied with his camera. The camera stuck out a little too far and was knocked off at the entrance to a tunnel; but Claude hung on and came through unscathed.

La Bête Humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance. His novels are filled with wonderful passages of popular poetry. For example, Séverine and Jacques Lentier [Lantier] have arranged to meet in the Square des Batignolles. It is their first meeting. Jacques Lentier is so moved that he cannot utter a word. Séverine says with a faint smile, `Don’t look it me like that, you’ll wear your eyes out.’ A trifle, but it had to be thought of. The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry or rather had supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount.”  (My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, translated by Norman Denny. Da Capo, 1974).

There is a Hollywood version of the Zola novel, Human Desire [1954}. The film was produced at the Columbia Studio, and directed by German émigré Fritz Lang. The stars are Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford. Given this was the 1940s and the period of the Hays Code, it is unsurprising that the adaptation diverges in important ways from the novel.

Notes for a course on European literature on Film.

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