La Bête Humaine (1938) Director: Jean Renoir
“The Human Beast” is loosely based on the successful 1890 Emile Zola novel of the same name. It was the seventeenth book of twenty in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. The film stars Renoir’s friend and actor, Jean Gabin, who also starred in his great film, La Grande Illusion in 1937. As the story goes, Gabin wanted to study in a train film which eventually led to Renoir directing this film. Renoir wrote the script in a matter of days.
The story is missing several celebrated portions from the Zola novel (while writing the script, Renoir admitted to not having read the novel in decades, so he read a few pages each night to refresh his memory). The plot is dark and tragic. It tells the story of two men: one Jacques Lantier, a locomotive engineer who has a terrible affliction that sends him into a murderous stupor when he is with a woman he loves. Meanwhile another man, Roubaud, a train stationmaster, discovers that his beloved wife, Séverine, had a past affair with a powerful man named Grandmorin. He devises a plot where he and his wife murder Grandmorin on the train one night, and they are spotted in the hallway only by Lantier. However, Lantier keeps their secret because he loves Roubaud’s wife. They develop a relationship as the Roubaud’s marriage goes sour, with both spouse unable to deal with one another and the memory of the murder. She persuades Lantier to kill her husband, but he is unable to do it. Lantier returns to her one night and goes into one of his murderous rampages, killing her. The next day, at work on the train, he decides he cannot live with his terrible act. He jumps off the train and kills himself. This concludes the film.
The film was highly popular upon its release -it was a huge boon to both Renoir and Gabin among the French public. However, Renoir’s popularity in France would later decline substantially following his panned, “The Rules of the Game” in 1939 (today, it is often considered one of the greatest films ever made). Each of the characters in “The Human Beast” is working class. This lens influences the dark nature of the story. Renoir, himself, plays a loud and bestial ex-convict in the film.
The film brilliantly contains early foreshadowing of film noir, however the plot is dark, twisted, and depressing. The train scenes are incredible, rife with allusions to Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923). When the train is moving, Lantier’s character appears filled with life, but when it stops it seems Lantier is all but done for. Thus, the train becomes a central character in the film. It is surely a great film, albeit heavy and ominous.