A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Jean Gabin and Julien Carette in La Bête Humaine
Jacques Lantier: Jean Gabin
Séverine Roubaud: Simone Simon
Roubaud: Fernand Ledoux
Flore: Blanchette Brunoy
Grandmorin: Jacques Berlioz
Pecqueux: Julien Carette
Victoire Pecqueux: Colette Régis
Cabuche: Jean Renoir

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Denise Leblond
Based on a novel by Émile Zola
Cinematography: Curt Courant
Production design: Eugène Lourié
Film editing: Suzanne de Troeye, Marguerite Renoir

Jean Gabin has been called "the French Clark Gable," perhaps because he has some of the charged virility we associate with Gable. But it seems to me that he possesses in equal, or even greater, measure the quiet, sometimes gruff integrity as an actor that we associate with Spencer Tracy. It's very much on display in La Bête Humaine, in which he underplays the role of the doomed Jacques Lantier, making us feel the solidity of the man rather than the inherited demons that Émile Zola's novel inflicted on him. (Perhaps he underplays a bit too much for some people, like Pauline Kael, who found him sometimes "a lump.") In any case, the star of the film is not so much Gabin as the train whose engine Lantier has affectionately named Lison and regards as female. Throughout La Bête Humaine, we see trains rushing down the tracks and surging through tunnels or hear their roar and rumble and shrieking whistles. The film is driven by the energy of trains almost more than by the passions of the characters. In a close adherence to Zola's biological determinism, the trains would be emblematic of unstoppable, mechanistic destiny, but Jean Renoir has tempered Zola's naturalism with his own humanism. Renoir's nods to Zola's determinism are perfunctory: The scene in which Lantier reverts to the darkness of his ancestors and starts to strangle Flore is an awkward way of introducing Zola's ideas. But whenever the passions of the characters come most to the forefront, as in the murders of Grandmorin and Séverine, Renoir's tendency is to look away: Grandmorin dies behind the closed curtains of a railway compartment, and Lantier's assault on Séverine is interrupted by cuts to the dance hall they have left behind. What I remember from the film is less the crushing force of destiny that overwhelms the characters than the irrepressible elements of ordinary life, epitomized in the camaraderie of Lantier and Pecqueux, and reinforced by the film's ending when Pecqueux stops the hurtling train and returns to find his dead friend and gently close his eyes.

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