Eye For Film >> Movies >> La Bete Humaine (1938) Film Review
La Bete Humaine
Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray
Emile Zola piles on the melo in his drama of murder and infidelity on the railways while Jean Renoir captures the intensity of emotion involved in working with steam engines. The combination of these two creative giants is as dark and electric as a thunderstorm at midnight.
Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a manic depressive, with violent tendencies (“It’s like some thick smoke that fills my head and distorts everything. I’m like a mad dog that wants to bite”), whose love of the train he drives surpasses everything – until Severine (Simone Simon).
Renoir invokes the camaraderie and pride of railwaymen in the years before union strikes and diesel, while ensuring, as with all his films, that the supporting roles are well-equipped with humour and humanity. At the heart of it, however, is a femme fatale – seductive, vulnerable, manipulative and dangerous to know.
Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), the assistant station master at Le Havre. He is much older, a company man to his fingertips, unaware of his wife’s “difficult” childhood and previous sexual encounters with her mother’s employer, a philandering aristocrat, whom he murders with Severine’s reluctant assistance on the night train from Paris. The only possible witness is Jacques, who was standing in the corridor while the deed was done. Roubaud orders Severine to find out what he knows, which brings the two together and ignites a passionate affair.
Jacques’ train is stuck at Le Havre for repairs, which gives him time to pursue Severine, whose relationship with her husband breaks down, although they remain irrevocably linked by the murder. As Roubaud sinks deeper into despair and debt – he’s having no luck at the poker tables – Severine knows that there is only one way to find happiness with Jacques and that involves another killing.
As a precursor to the classic Hollywood films noir of the Forties (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, et al), Renoir’s adaptation of Zola’s novel is beautifully constructed. If the storyline appears recklessly jagged in parts, especially concerning Jacques’ “attacks”, which are never explained, and Severine’s ambiguous attitude towards sex, it is retrieved by mesmerising performances from Gabin and Simon.Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2007