La Bête Humaine

France (1938) Dir. Jean Renoir

The English translation of this film’s title, based on the novel by Emile Zola, is The Human Beast, but to which one of the three main characters this is referring is the conceit of one of Jean Renoir’s most popular and successful films.

Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) is the station master at a small train station, married to the much younger Séverine (Simone Simon). Controlling and easily jealous, Roubaud is enraged to discover Séverine has been seduced by her godfather Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz) and plots to kill him. The murder is committed on a train forcing Séverine present as an accomplice.

Also on the train that night is Roubaud’s colleague, train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), who sees the couple leave Grandmorin’s compartment but agrees to keep silent, for he is in love with Séverine. Realising this, Séverine begins an affair with Lantier and puts in motion a plan to have him to kill her husband.

With the film’s opening scene of a train journey largely shot from a POV perspective, one is ill-prepared for the tragic noir that is about to unfold. The motivations of the complex characters are left largely undisclosed with ambiguous slivers of a backstory being the only clue. I don’t doubt that Zola’s novel provides a deeper exploration but don’t take this as a slight against Renoir’s adaptation.

Lantier is the first person we meet and even under a face covered in soot and dust as he stokes the train’s fire we can see he is a man with a burden, later revealed to be a form of epilepsy that manifest itself in short violent bursts which he blames on hereditary “tainted blood”. Roubaud follows, rigidly asserting his authority against a snooty passenger to explain his demeanour. Quite how he managed to woo such a vivacious young beauty as Séverine remains a mystery.

In true melodrama fashion Séverine is presented as a hapless victim trapped in a loveless marriage. She has a cosy existence as a station master’s wife but even by physical appearances alone she and Roubaud are a mismatched pair. When he learns of Grandmorin’s inappropriate behaviour towards his wife, Roubaud physically takes it out on Séverine, before bullying her succour in his murder plan.

Leaping from the brutish arms of Roubaud and into the comfort of Lantier’s seems like a no brainer, but Lantier is also senior to Séverine in age. Maybe she has an attraction to older men possibly related to her “troubled childhood” which Séverine never expands upon. Séverine plays the role of the wronged woman very well but her proto femme fatale persona slowly reveals itself when enticing Lantier to off her husband.  

Once the film begins to get serious, “love triangle” is a rather erroneous epithet since love is the least available commodity involved for our troubled trio. The only one we can assume is genuine is Lantier, but this could be a simple cast of lust – Séverine is quite a looker. She may declare a requited love for Lantier but an air of caprice about Séverine raises alarm bells for the viewer which Lantier is oblivious to. Roubaud remains a closed book outside of his domineering and duplicitous personality.

It makes for an intriguing dynamic with all three at one point being in the middle of the other two, perhaps not always directly but very much in theory. Renoir uses a slow build to establish the characters first, being careful not to give everything away at once. The pace is still brisk and Renoir deftly leads us into a false sense of security, suggesting the story is over at the 75 minute mark while another 20 minutes are still to come.

The darkness of the material and the often downbeat and mentally oppressive tone of the film makes this a bold alternative to the fluffy or textbook melodramas Hollywood was producing at the time. The final act is quite horrifying in terms of how far down a desperate path the cast had travelled and despite nothing explicit being shown, the bleakness and tragedy of the situations speak volumes.

One might find hints of pre-Nazi era German cinema, which was often dark, here but the French urbanity is more prominent. Some Hollywood style presentation tricks may have been employed – one of Séverine and Lantier’s romantic trysts is staged as a textbook Tinsel Town tableaux – although Renoir is daring with (presumed) post coital situations that the Hays Code in the US would blow a gasket over.

This observation isn’t to the detriment of the film however, boasts as it does innovative shots of the train journeys that are commonplace today, but still look remarkable and exhilarating. And with Simone Simon being ravishingly photogenic, Renoir doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to capturing her in a variety of unique ways, be it in reflections or with effortlessly flattering and alluring lighting.  

Simon is more than the glamour of this film – Séverine is the centrifugal force of the whole plot and the most unpredictable of the three leads. She flits between hapless child to devious vixen with ease, maintaining an air of mystery and sensuality throughout. Fernand Ledoux’s Roubaud comes across more like a father figure than a husband, being the least sympathetic of the bunch.  

For a studied and nuanced performance one need look no further to the earthy essaying of Lantier by Jean Gabin. Having worked with Renoir before, Gabin rewards both director and audience with a subtle and astute turn that keeps us guessing about Lantier’s mindset despite a deceptively transparent outward facade. Very much the blueprint for the age of “neo realism” style of acting which would arrive a few short years later.

Fritz Lang remade La Bête Humaine as Human Desire in 1954 but I wonder if even Lang’s genius could better the subtleties and heart aching pathos of this sublime Renoir original. A stunning and overlooked treat for all film buffs to rediscover.