La bete Humaine
Simone Simon and Jean Gabin
This 1938 french film directed by Jean Renoir is a bleak tale of a railroad engineer (Jean Gabin) and his affair with the abused wife (Simone Simon) of a railroad supervisor (Fernand Ledoux). From a long list of bad choices come even worse ones as these characters wrestle with an emotional claustrophobia that keeps closing in on them throughout the tale. The film is based on the Emile Zola novel from 1890.
I can see why Simone Simon was typecast in later roles in American films as a destructive femme fatale, apparently based upon this film to some degree. Presented is the human side to her nihilism, apparently rooted in her life with her husband who is a slapping, hair-pulling brute. Her frivolity is the proverbial 'eat and drink for tomorrow we die' and the behaviour of the two male leads makes you question exactly who is the title of this film describing?
Railroad engineer Jean Gabin controls the screen whenever he appears, an actor considered one of the most powerful actors in French classic film cinema. Gabin's self-assured character in La bete Humain ("The Human Beast") senses that he is on a collision course with mortality (and not just his own) and the result is something that is half of the depression era of gritty reality, and also looks ahead toward the stylized noir films of the 1940s. Le bete Humaine is something of a proto-noir, with an existential attitude about things it doesn't explain, but only implies through the motions of the characters.
Jean Renoir's direction is thorough and uses the black and white tones of the scenes to either box in his characters in shadow (the characters certainly box themselves in with their propensity for murder and mayhem); or Renoir opens up the screen when he wants to show us there is a whole world these characters are living in, and though they are all clenched into self-absorbed tension with the claustrophobia of their lives, other minor actors in many scenes are laughing and enjoying themselves. Its both a contrast, and maybe an unintentional commentary about the angst that is destroying the upper tier of our cast, but has left the lesser members untouched, because you see, they're still enjoying life.
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Original Page Dec 1, 2009 | Updated Dec 17, 2009
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