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La bête humaine: The Criterion Collection

As the first of three essays accompanying Criterion's DVD edition observes, the bracing steam train sequence that kicks off Jean Renoir's La bête humaine (1938) can be interpreted as Cahiers du Cinéma for a "plunge into the materiality of the world." Other fans of this broody murder thriller adapted from Emile Zola's tragic novel — for instance, Peter Bogdanovich on this same disc — see the train's massive steel tonnage hurtling forward on the unbendable rails of determinism, with grimly resigned pre-war French poetic realism capturing the world in predestined landscapes speeding toward us before we finally approach the iron geometries of an all-encompassing rail yard.

But as valid as that view may be, Renoir puts his own distinctive backspin onto it. Instead of freighting this metaphorical opening with a contemporary bleak and weighty fatalism, Renoir makes it all so exhilarating. With his second-unit director — his nephew and frequent cinematographer Claude Renoir — he mounted cameras to the exterior front and side of a real speeding locomotive. (During filming, a slight miscalculation before a tunnel approach caused the train-cam to be pummeled from its mount; fortunately, Claude saw the collision coming and hurried inside before impact.) The train scene doesn't begin until a fulsome portrait of Zola is overlaid onto drifting clouds, is held silently, then sacre bleu! we're snap-cut to the wail of a train whistle over a shot of a fiery boiler. Right from the get-go Renoir's own vivid personality reshapes Zola's novel of society rocketing on a hellbound train toward oblivion.

Furthermore, and a possible surprise for Renoir fans who know him chiefly through his more renowned masterpieces such as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, La bête humaine shows the great French director with a foot far enough into Hitchcock/pulp territory that it's often counted as a precursor to the film style that the French eight years later dubbed film noir.

Renoir being Renoir, this sullen and gripping melodrama of "the human beast" stoked to murder by lust for the most kittenish of femmes fatales (Simone Simon) is told through likeable working-class characters who win our respect and sympathy. Jean Gabin plays the good-hearted but solitary engineer Jacques Lantier. Although Lantier does not drink booze, he blames his spells of blackouts and violence (he throttles a woman with all the forethought of scratching an itch) on his family's history of alcoholism. Whether or not his mental illness is the result of alcoholic family ghosts in his blood, Lantier is convinced that his affliction is fated and therefore incurable. Consequently he is comfortable only when aboard his beloved train, which he has named Lison.

On an occasion when he's a passenger on the train, Lantier witnesses a stabbing. The corpse was the influential godfather of Séverin (Simon), the much-younger wife of stationmaster Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux). Séverin's slyly revealed sexual history with her godfather has driven jealous Roubaud to homicidal rage. Because Lantier falls in love with Séverin, he keeps quiet even when the police haul in innocent Cabuche (Renoir himself), an ex-con with a murder record and a motive, for the killing. With Roubaud's encouragement, Séverin and Lantier speed into a tunnel of sweaty trysts and, in true noirish female fashion, deadly sexual manipulations. Simon's carnal predator controls the men in her bed with all the skilled aplomb Lantier possesses at the levers of his powerful steam engine. "If my husband were out of the way..." she purrs with a suggestiveness that fed a generation of Hollywood dark ladies to come. She and Gabin's doom-worn engine driver could hardly be worse candidates for a lovers' triangle, and it's no spoiler to note that by the time of the masterfully played climax more bodies are littering the tracks.

But in La bête humaine, even with lust, murder, and madness shoveling the coal, Renoir takes care to elaborate an article of faith that, the following year, he made the axis of The Rules of the Game: everyone has their reasons.

It's no wonder that this was Renoir's greatest commercial success in his lifetime. To play Lantier, actor Jean Gabin learned to drive the train engine, so the shots of France's hottest screen star piloting the locomotive along its route are authentic to a documentary degree, with no backdrops or other in-studio trickery. As much as Renoir directs our attentions to the train's sensational plunge forward to God-(fashionably absent or otherwise)-knows-what, Renoir the proud humanist grounds his film in the realistically smudged faces and workaday interactions of Gabin's engine driver and his only friend, his plucky and sensible fireman Pecqueux (Julien Carette).

Renoir's choices of imagery and intense atmospherics complement both the realism of the train settings and the dark moodiness of the plot. His location shooting takes us into places where steam and steel and fire strip sex of any unnatural romantic delicacies. A dance hall scene — probably the film's other best-remembered sequence — affords Renoir an opportunity to intersect the personal horror of a murder with comic theatrical touches and a vaudeville bounce. La bête humaine may show Renoir at his darkest, but as always Renoir in his observantly caustic mode can't bring himself to not splash highlighting colors onto his preeminently human canvas.

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Criterion's DVD edition of La bête humaine is a beauty. The black-and-white image (1.37:1, windowboxed) is perfectly balanced and smooth with only a few minor flaws in the source print. Parts of this new high-def transfer were transferred from the best existing film element, a 35mm theatrical print, and edited into the 35mm fine-grain master positive. The DD 1.0 monaural audio (French with English subtitles) is clean and vivid with a dynamic strength that may cause even longtime Criterion collectors to arch an impressed eyebrow.

Extras start with a six-minute introduction to the film by Renoir, taken from the same 1967 series of film-specific intros Criterion has placed onto other Renoir discs. The gabby director sits at his café table and, as if we've just shared a half-bottle of a reasonably good claret, offers energetic reminiscences on the film's production, especially the technical adventures involved with shooting on a train moving at 60 mph.

A 2004 interview with ascot-bedecked Peter Bogdanovich (11 mins.) focuses his well-spoken erudition onto the pre-war era's gloomy mood that manifested as poetic realism, and onto La bête humaine's distinctive Renoirisms, those elements where even in such a hard-boiled plot Renoir's compassion and feeling for his people show through the frames.

In a French TV clip (7 mins.) from 1957, Renoir and Simon demonstrate for the home audience how a director and actor interact by recreating a key scene from La bête humaine; it's twenty years after the fact and in front of a studio audience, but Simon still has the moves and Renoir dives into showing us how a maestro works. A 1968 French TV clip (24 mins.), "Adapter Zola," brings together interviews with Renoir, Zola scholar Henri Mitterand, film critic Jean Collet, and screenwriter Pierre Bost.

Also here is the original theatrical trailer, plus a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes shots and international poster art.

Joining the disc is a 38-page liner notes booklet with fine essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, a 1991 Sight and Sound piece by historian Ginette Vincendeau, and production designer Eugène Lourié's memories of the production. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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