La Béte Humaine (1938)

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  • directed by Jean Renoir
  • starring Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux
  • Jacques Lantier lusts after Séverine Roubaud the wife of his co-worker Roubaud

“This haze fills my head and twists everything out of shape.”

Based on the novel by Emile Zola, Renoir’s La Béte Humaine is a bleak affair. It’s hard to believe that any semblance of romance or light could emerge from such a thick cloud of murder, yet Lantier and Séverine at one point reach such heights, although we never come close to believing that any future can come of it. Quite the opposite. I watched the whole film with the feeling of dread that comes from the awareness that this was not going to end well for any of these characters.

One of the first times we meet Lantier, out of nowhere he strangles his girlfriend to near-death, stopping just short and using an unexplained condition as an excuse for these fits of spontaneous violence. So, naturally when he witnesses the Roubauds in the middle of a murder plot involving her perverted godfather, he of course doesn’t rat them out when prompted by the authorities, let alone judge them for what they’ve done. Instead, he falls for her. We know that Lantier is capable of snapping at any point and Séverine herself comes with a murderous past. How else can we expect this doomed relationship to end but into a downward spiral of passion and rage?

So, this was a big moment for the Classixquest–my first Renoir. Not my last by a longshot as, according to many, I still have two of his greatest films left to see, along with the rest of his catalog to pick through. Here, he uses the backdrop of powerful locomotives and grease-stained engineers and the harsh sounds of the train clanging along the track to complement his powerful and uncontrollable characters. The film was in production just when Hitler’s shadow was starting to cast over much of Europe and it displayed all of the cynicism and absence of morals that should fit right into that time. The Human Beast…does it allow for actual love? Where does its darkness come from? What are its limits? In Lantier’s case, I think we only got the answer to the first of those questions.

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all the things I should have seen

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