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HUMAN BEAST, THE (BÊTE HUMAINE, LA)(director/writer: Jean Renoir; screenwriter: from a story by Émile Zola; cinematographer: Curt Courant; editors: Marguerite Renoir & Suzanne de Troeye; music: Joseph Kosma; cast: Jean Gabin (Jacques Lantier), Simone Simon (Séverine), Fernand Ledoux (Roubaud), Blanchette Brunoy (Flore), Gérard Landry (Dauvergne), Jenny Hélia (Philomène), Julien Carette (Pecqueux), Jean Renoir (Cabuche, the Poacher), Jacques Berlioz (Grand-Morin); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Hakim; Hen’sTooth Video; 1938-France-in French)
“… it’s the hot visuals that make the film so explosive.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

La Bete Humaine is based on a novel by Emile Zola, and is directed with much passion by Jean Renoir. It was remade in 1953 by Fritz Lang under the title Human Desire, but suffered because of Hollywood censorship. Lang also made the anti-hero’s problem a question of fate rather than will. Renoir uses the images of trains speeding under tunnels and over bridges imaginatively as a metaphor for the violent forces that operate to drive human desires. La Bete Humaine is a classic love triangle tale that takes a tragic turn, and the three principle performers — the brooding Jean Gabin, the youthful Simone Simon, and the jealous Fernand Ledoux — are just superb. But it’s the hot visuals that make the film so explosive. The electrifying black-and-white photography by cinematographer Curt Courant gives the film an ongoing tension and a heightened sense of passion. Violence and sex come pouring down throughout like the exaggerated lust between the lovers seen entering a wooden railroad shed in a rain storm. There’s also the constant usage of trains pulling into and out of the Le Havre station as seen from the stationmaster’s apartment window that gives the film such a forceful moody look.

Renoir directs a tragic melodrama about an embittered railroad engineer, Jacques Lantier (Gabin), who feels comfortable only when on his train –which he calls Lison. He suffers from a hereditary condition due to his family’s history of drinking problems that gives him headaches and makes him become uncontrollably violent out of the blue. We first see this problem arise for the laconic and ill-fated lover when he gets overcome with the maddening desire to choke a young acquaintance he has known for some time, Flore, for no reason at all. He leaves her despite her willingness to give the relationship another shot because he’s afraid his condition is incurable.

While Lantier is riding as a passenger on a train back from Paris to Le Havre a married couple, the ordinary looking Le Havre stationmaster Roubaud (Ledoux) and his elegantly attractive much younger wife Séverine (Simon), are also aboard. The train is practically empty except for a few train workers, a poacher and a wealthy passenger called Grand-Morin (Berlioz). Roubaud asked his wife to do him a favor and ask her well-connected godfather, Grand-Morin, to get him off the hook of the complaints being filed against him by an impertinent sugar tycoon who was stopped by him from bringing his dog aboard the train. After the favor is discharged, Roubaud figures out that his wife was the mistress of the elderly Grand-Morin when she was a teenager at the time her mother worked for him as a maid.

Roubaud is stewing in a jealous rage. With his wife, he visits Grand-Morin in his train compartment and stabs him to death and then makes it look like a robbery. In the corridor they pass Lantier who was taking something out of his eye. Lantier is attracted to Séverine and thereby tells the police he didn’t see anyone. The murder is pinned on the poacher, Cabuche (Jean Renoir-the director), a volatile ex-con who served time for murder and has a motive for getting even with the Grand-Morin.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

To make sure Lantier doesn’t talk, Séverine becomes friendly with him and is encouraged to do so by her no longer respectable hubby. So begins a torrid affair between the two that briefly ends when Lantier can’t murder at Séverine’s hubby as she commands. Lantier becomes jealous when she takes up with another suitor, and when he wins her back and is about to carry out her command of murder he is so mentally tortured that he instead strangles Séverine to death. On the train with his best friend and co-worker Pecqueux (Carette) he confesses, but instead of listening to what Pecqueux says about turning himself over to the police–Lantier jumps off the train and commits suicide.

What the film couldn’t do was be more explicit about Gabin’s mental illness, as that part of the story was left hanging. But through the strong atmospheric visuals, Renoir’s passionately alive deterministic drama reflects so much of the tenderness and violence of the ambivalently characterized anti-hero that one can excuse it for not being more detailed about this non-drinker’s hereditary alcoholism problem.

REVIEWED ON 1/20/2003 GRADE: A –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”