A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, January 28, 2017

La Chienne (Jean Renoir, 1931)

Seeing Michel Simon as the milquetoast Maurice Legrand in La Chienne after L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934) and Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932) is something of a revelation, even if at the end of La Chienne he has become something like Boudu. But the entire film is a revelation: The second sound film by Renoir, it demonstrates an innovative mastery of what was essentially a new medium, one that even the Americans who claimed to have invented synchronized sound were still struggling with. Renoir -- with the help of sound technicians Denise Batcheff and Marcel Courmes -- creates an auditory ambience still rare in 1931, relying on dialogue and sound effects created on set and not in post-production. The most often-cited example is the rasp of the paper knife held by Lulu (Janie Marèse) as she cuts the pages of the book she's trying to read -- just before Legrand kills her with it. But the film is full of small auditory details like the squeaking of the shoes worn by the defense attorney (Sylvain Itkine) as he paces nervously back and forth before his doomed client, Dédé (Georges Flamant). But beyond the technical mastery, which also includes some brilliant camerawork by cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, the film is a tour de force of bitter irony, not least because Renoir keeps it from falling into sensationalism or unrelieved darkness. Legrand, initially the henpecked husband to a termagant (Magdeleine Bérubet), brings calamity to several lives, not only those of Lulu and Dédé, but also those of his wife and her supposedly dead ex-husband (Roger Gaillard). And yet, at the film's end he survives, not only unbroken but in many ways a stronger man than he was at the film's beginning. His story is framed as a puppet show with, as a puppet claims, "no moral message." But though Legrand commits fraud, adultery, and murder without receiving the official punishment of the law, the moral is aimed at those who scorned and abused him: Beware the worm who may turn and prove to be a viper.

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