• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:November 3, 2021

La BĂŞte Humaine: Juggernaut in Motion

What amazing movies Jean Renoir made just before the war. Grand Illusion (1937) is an obvious masterpiece and The Rules of the Game (1939) brilliantly satirized the upper class. In between them came La Bête Humaine, a film that has been described as the kind of European drama that inspired Hollywood film noir. But it all started with Jean Gabin’s desire to make a movie where trains played a critical role.

Arriving in Le Havre
Lantier (Gabin) is a railroad engineer who has just arrived in Le Havre on his train, fondly named ”La Lison”. There is nothing in life he values more than his locomotive, but he does meet up with a former girlfriend of his, Flore (Blanchette Brunoy). They talk and there comes a moment when they embrace, but Lantier suddenly falls into a rage and tries to strangle Flore, not letting go until a passing train roars by them. He has these attacks and it gets worse if he’s been drinking.

Meantime, Séverine (Simone Simon) confesses to her husband, a station master (Fernand Ledoux), that she’s had an affair with her godfather, Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz). The husband takes his wife on a train ride where he confronts Grandmorin and kills him. Lantier is a witness, sort of, having seen the couple on the train, but decides not to tell the police. Later, Lantier and Séverine fall in love…

An ambiguous figure
The title translates to ”The Human Beast” and there’s no doubt that Lantier is that beast, presented here as an ambiguous figure, especially as Gabin plays him. For much of the film, we sympathize with him and his love affair with Séverine is romantically depicted by Renoir and his cinematographer Curt Courant… at least up to a point. It doesn’t take long to realize that Séverine is a manipulative woman who wants to use Lantier as a tool to escape her husband whom she does not love. And, obviously, one of the first things we learn about Lantier is his homicidal streak. There are few real victims in this dark tale, only people who are either desperate, sick or murderous in general.

Gabin got what he was looking for in another collaboration with Renoir after Grand Illusion. Renoir agreed to do the movie, writing the script in just a couple of weeks, even though he hadn’t read Émile Zola’s novel in 25 years. As the shooting began, Renoir kept going back to the novel, looking for Zola’s words as inspiration to improve the dialogue. The filmmakers made sure trains remained a key ingredient; shot in Le Havre and at the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, the movie emphasizes Lantier’s strange relationship with his locomotive, suggesting that perhaps he’s best served nursing that infatuation instead of getting involved with women.

The film opens and ends with images showing us the unstoppable force of a train in motion, smoke and soot part of the engineers’ lives. Heavy on symbolism, Renoir uses several sequences as suggestive illustration of this ”human beast’s” emotional journey, as in the scene where Lantier and Séverine’s romance begins in earnest and a barrel is seen overflowing with water during a rainstorm.

There have been critics who objected to Gabin’s character and it’s easy to understand why. There’s something utterly creepy about a man who suffers from a condition that makes him kill women, and yet he’s treated more or less as the romantic lead. But the ambiguity of the story and its characters remain intriguing throughout, and the cast helps, including Simon as a woman who does what she believes she has to do in order to survive, not realizing that there is no way out of Le Havre for her.

La Bête Humaine 1938-France. 100 min. B/W. Produced by Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim. Directed by Jean Renoir. Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Denise Leblond. Novel: Émile Zola. Cinematography: Curt Courant. Cast: Jean Gabin (Jacques Lantier), Simone Simon (Séverine Roubaud), Fernand Ledoux (Roubaud), Blanchette Brunoy, Gérard Landry, Jenny Hélia… Jean Renoir.

Trivia: Alternative titles: The Human Beast and Judas Was a Woman. Previously filmed in Germany in 1920 and remade in the U.S. as Human Desire (1954), in Argentina as La Bestia Humana (1957) and in Britain as a TV movie, Cruel Train (1995). 



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