La Bête Humaine 1938
I’m assuming Emile Zola is the Charles Dickens of France. His name is as familiar to me as many authors, like William Thackeray, or Thomas Hardy, but I’ve never read one of his novels. In fact, I’ve only read one of Hardy’s novels, Return of the Native, and one of Thackeray’s novels, Vanity Fair, both when I was seventeen. Hardy was fine but with Thackeray I struggled to find any storytelling aptitude in Thackeray’s method, or any point of interest or commonality with my experience or my life. I struggled through all six or seven hundred pages, by literally taking seven months to read it. By page 150 I was so profoundly bored I considered taking my own life. By page 160 I’d come up with a more sensible plan, which was to literally take the book a day at a time, a page at a time.
Films mainly run a couple of hours. Books take days to read. Watching Bergman and Bresson over and over wasn’t like reading a book over and over. Much easier. Not such an arduous ask, to give them a second go.
I had no idea what I was going to find in The Beast Within (The Human Beast), which comes between The Great Illusion and The Rules of the Game. What I found was a director putting a camera in extraordinary places (but so did Vertov and Keaton) but a story which was a potboiler, and worth nothing more than a ten-cent read.
I cringed in the awfully-staged initial scenes between Roubaud and Severine. This was bad, even as silent movie acting and exposition. Then with Lantier and Flore, it was Renoir making it pure melodrama again. The motivation of Flore, to resist Lantier at first, then when he becomes aggressive and murderous, to finally submit to him, and declare that she loves him, is unconvincing. In fact, it is ridiculous, unbelievable and embarrassingly badly. As a director for hire he may have felt that he was being true to that aspect of the novel. In a novel, the fact that you can (cheaply) write a lot of words, you can make something like this have more scope and comes across as serious. Here, it is as if Renoir is having a laugh about it, because he hasn’t treated the hereditary murderous rage that Lantier has inherited with any psychological insight. My guess, is that if you’re going to use the title from a famous Zola novel you can’t very well leave out the thing that defines Lantier, the main character: the beast that lives within him.
In other sequences, however, I thought, “this is absolutely incredible.” It was pure-Hollywood or pure-British in the setting, but “Renoir is doing the rest of the film – in 1937 – better than (the often studio bound) Hitchcock did, because Renoir did it on location, ie. without back projection. It’s the same extraordinary look that Renoir’s cinematographers give Boudu and Partie.
Richard Roud, who was film critics for The Guardian for most of the 1960s wrote a loving tribute to Renoir in his A Critical Dictionary. At the beginning of the article he wrote:
Renoir is the greatest of all filmmakers. For a critic like Noel Burch the essential Renoir is the silent period. . For me it is the films from La Chienne (1931) to La Règle du Jeu (1931). There are others who prefer the American period and the later French films.
He justifies the fact that he writes about the pre-1940 films (and Tom Milne about the rest), stating,
“I’m not saying they are the only good ones, or even that they are very different in nature or quality from the others:
I am simply saying that they are the ones that interest me most; therefore, for me, the best.”
And that’s interesting because I don’t have access to Toni (1934), La Chienne (1931), Le Crime du Monsieur Lange (1935) which he favours. Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) and Partie de Campagne (1936), which I did get to see, he also regards highly. La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du Jeu (1939) are masterpieces, which I did get to see. The film Lower Depths (1936), Roud regards as a minor work, distinguished by its acting, “but the combination of Gorky (who wrote the novel) and Renoir was not particularly fruitful”. That’s one I can view, but I feel I’m missing out on Toni and Monsieur Lange (which Richard Corliss and Schickel of TIME Magazine, included instead of either Grande or Règle) in particular. Another major film, La Marseillaise (1938), “is often clumsy” and doesn’t “ring true.”
So, I get to see only five out of the eight really good one from 1931-1939.
[I’ve just seen the authors of some of the essays and it is a great list. How amazing to be good enough to be asked to contribute to a major dictionary like that. I see that Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote about Robert Bresson for The Illustrated History of the Cinema, a weekly English magazine I bought every week for two years, wrote articles on Otto Preminger and Nicholas Ray for Roud’s book. And that Penelope Houston wrote the article on Orson Welles. John Russell Taylor wrote about Robert Siodmak, Satyajit Ray and Michael Powell and Robin Wood about Ken Russell and Arthur Penn. Two good books I’ve read on Hitchcock were by Taylor and Wood. Roud seems to be the expert on French cinema, also writing about Pagnol, Resnais and Chris Marker. Richard Corllis has some articles as well. It’s a very cool book.]
Jean Renoir is my undoing at the moment. I’ve appreciated six Bresson films, six Truffaut films, eleven Bergman films, two Kubrick films, two Murnau films, two Chris Marker films, two films each by Scorsese and Coppola, as well as films by Keaton, Herzog, Vertov and Ozu.
But Renoir! His films are so uncomplicated (except Rules of the Game) and they tell a story on an intimate scale, not an expansive one, which draws my attention to the narrative and the way it tells the narrative. They are genre films. They’re not films which turned film on its head. Other than Règle (Rules) – which was seen by virtually no one for many years (between 1940 and the late fifties), which turned out to be extraordinary, when reconstructed fifteen to twenty years later, the other films I’ve watched are routine in their storytelling technique, although I think Boudu is remarkably self-assured for 1932 – and it was shot on location.
Admittedly, they have beautiful images, beautiful composition, consistently good direction and performances, but does deep-focus photography, and a new use of screen-space, and putting a camera on location – in places that it couldn’t even fit – and, filming so many of the exteriors, exterior? Does this add up to looking past the clunky filmmaking?
Maybe it does! After all, in 1936, 37, 38 and 39, there was a lot of clunky (rough) filmmaking going on in all of Hitchcock’s films pre-Rebecca., despite the obviously brilliant things that were happening as well. I’m looking forward to seeing some Hollywood-Renoir films.
Suddenly in 1940 with all the resources of Hollywood at hand, Hitchcock’s filmmaking went from good (but sometimes ham-fisted) to great.
Hitchcock mainly worked indoors and Renoir loved working outdoors.
With the exception of Vertov [Man With a Movie Camera (1929), some of Sunrise (1927)] and Chris Marker, realistically, I haven’t seen a camera go where Renoir took the camera between 1932 and 1939.