Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux, Blanchette Brunoy, Julien Carette, Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir, Denise Leblond, based on a novel by Emile Zola
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 12/21/1938

La Bête Humaine (1938)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Zola Express

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This adaptation of an Emile Zola novel is a little different from Jean Renoir's usual works; it's more of a thriller, almost a film noir, and while Renoir was able to peer deeply into the material and find its humanity, to give the film his own personal touch, the story itself is a little buggy. Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a train engineer, working alongside Pecqueux (Julien Carette, who appeared with Gabin the previous year in Renoir's La Grande Illusion). The stationmaster Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) makes the mistake of angering a VIP, and he has his pretty wife Séverine (Simone Simon) visit the rich and powerful Grandmorin to set things right; Roubaud believes Séverine is the Grandmorin's goddaughter, but in reality, she was his mistress. Roubaud finds out and concocts a plan to murder the Grandmorin (who is never seen) on a train. Lantier witnesses the crime but says nothing because he has his eye on Séverine. Oh, and Lantier is actually the "human beast" of the title; when he is aroused by a female, it turns into murderous impulses. Renoir himself plays a man who is blamed and arrested for the actual crime, a subplot that, frustratingly, never goes anywhere. (This may be part of Renoir's point, but it's unsatisfying storytelling.) And the ending is sure to have many viewers' eyes rolling. But the beginning, a sequence largely without dialogue, with the train rolling through the French countryside between Paris and Le Havre, is stunning. Renoir fans and scholars have debated the merits of La Bête Humaine, which was one of Renoir's biggest financial successes, for decades. For me, it's very much worth seeing for the 85-90% that works, and works well. Fritz Lang remade the film in 1954 as Human Desire.

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