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HALL OF FAMEon 25 January 2008
For the first seven minutes of La Bete Humaine we're in the open cab of a huge steam engine barreling down the tracks at 60 miles an hour from Le Havre to Paris. The only sounds are the roar of the wind and the wheels on the rails. One crew member is hurling shovels-full of coal into the fire box. The other is checking the gauges, pulling a lever, sticking his head out the side to look ahead. The engineer is dressed in dirty coveralls, a greasy cloth cap on his head, protective goggles pushed up on his forehead. The wind rushes over him. We can't hear a thing because of the noise. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of him framed for a moment against the sky. The engineer is Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin). Controlling that huge engine and driving it at speed is what has given his life any meaning. Some film critics say this was one of the movies the early noir directors in the Forties must have seen. Perhaps, but this film transcends the genre.

Lantier is a taciturn working man, not disliked but lonely. He suffers spells of headaches, fever, of "waves of grief," of violent seizures he blames on the alcoholism of his parents. He wears the sadness of life like a cloak on his shoulders. One night, as a passenger on the train returning to Le Havre, he sees the Le Havre station master, Roubard (Fernand Ledoux), and his wife, Severine (Simone Simon), on board. Roubard, jealous of his younger wife, has just killed a man in the man's train compartment. Lantier, looking at Severine, provides a statement that avoids implicating either her or her husband, but then fatefully finds himself falling in love with her. And Severine? "I am incapable of loving anyone," she tells Lantier. But Lantier moves into a passionate affair with her, a relationship which Lantier needs and which Severine uses. Severine realizes how Lantier might be used to solve the problem of her husband's existence. From there, the movie moves ahead with all the power of Lantier's steam engine and with all the inevitability of death. There is no redemption, no absolution for anyone. And at the end, what is Lantier's epitaph? Just "Poor guy."

La Bete Humaine is a great example of Jean Renoir's ability to tell a story which focuses on the humanity of the characters while not flinching from their circumstances or the results of their actions. The style of the movie is integral to its effect. The railway scenes all were shot on location. The grime of the workingmen's lives is everywhere. For all the scenes of the train on the move, only one brief back-screen projection shot was used, at the end of the movie for obvious reasons. Renoir and his cameraman, his nephew Claude Renoir, set cameras on the train focused on the engine cab, or attached to the side of the engine. The train powers its way over the tracks, through tunnels and across bridges. The sound track was recorded right there. Renoir also used great imagery. That shot of Gabin with the goggles on his forehead framed against the sky is almost iconic. A stabbing which takes several minutes is inter-cut with scenes of a dance for the trainmen and a man on stage singing a popular music hall song. The first consummation of the relationship between Lantier and Severine takes place in a hard rainstorm, and the camera cuts away to a downspout gushing water into a barrel, fading out and back to the water slowly stopping in the morning, then moving to a doorway to show two pairs of feet in shoes step away from the small shack. I have to think that Hitchcock would have envied that scene, although Renoir plays it matter-of-factly, without the hint of a smirk.

Gabin, for me, is probably the best film actor. He doesn't show a lot of emotion; his face can sometimes barely move. He's not a particularly handsome man. Even so, he can move from sad longing to fearful emotional distress in seconds. He doesn't seem to look much different when Lantier is happy, looking forward to meeting Severine, to when he looks distressed but determined, when he intends to do what Severine wants him to do. But there is no doubt what Lantier is feeling.

This is a terrific, tough, sad film well worth owning.
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on 16 February 2009
Renoir prefaces this movie with a quote from the Zola novel this is based on, and a picture of the Great Man, as if to insist that this is an authentic version of the novel. But it isn't.

Normally I accept that movies can and should take liberties with novels in order to be better movies. But the comparison here does Renoir no favours, and shows how much we lose in the film. Zola's novel is part of a series portraying a whole society, that of France in the years 1850-70 under Napoleon III. Here he was concerned both with criminality and justice. In the novel there are at least four murders, one suicide (not Lantier's) and a deliberate causing of a train crash which kills 30 people. While Jacques suffers from "The Beast Inside", others murder for revenge, jealousy, money, sex perversion. Zola is saying there are as many types of murder as there are people, and we are all capable of murderous feelings. Justice is seen as venial and corrupt, and not interested in truth even if capable for finding it. This political dimension is lacking.

There are also three spectacular set-pieces connected with the railway in the novel: a train struggling through an awful snowstorm; a gut-wrenching train crash; and the apocalyptic ending where Lantier and Pecqueux fall off the footplate fighting - they fall under the wheels and the bodies are found without heads and feet, but with their hands still round each others' throats. The last image of the novel is the driverless train hurtling ever faster into the night, full of heedless soldiers, drunk and singing, on their way to be cannon fodder at the Battle of Sedan.

I'm sure many of the omissions, and the updating to contemporary (1938) France, were dictated by budgets. But compared with the toughness of Zola, Renoir is gentle and almost leisurely. He couldn't feel towards the Popular Front government of his day the contempt Zola felt towards Imperial France. So instead he gives us is an intense trio of characters doomed to the miseries of love; wanting it and incapable of giving or receiving it. Gabin as the hero stricken with the homicidal urge conveys a world of sadness and isolation almost without moving a muscle; but look at him looking at himself in the mirror after murdering his lover Severine, and you see a great movie actor at work. Simone Simon does an immensely subtle job with the difficult part of Severine, amoral, driven from one crisis to the next, and tragically aware of her own frigidity as a result of child abuse; her longing for love and her eventual thawing are most moving. The actress went on to do good work in Hollywood in the Cat People movies, and also with Max Ophuls in the 1950s, but nothing like the intensity of pain and longing we get here.

The third side of the triangle, Severine's husband Roubaud, is played with great deadpan dignity by Fernand LeDoux, a classical French actor with no hint of slumming it. He has the most difficult part, in that his character appears in fits and starts, but in his discovery of the body of his wife, all his emotion is seen in his back, a great piece of physical acting. (Trivia note: Both he and Simone Simon lived to be 95)

Others have drawn attention to the brilliant filming of the murder intercut with a cheap bal musette song, the lovely indirect filming of the lovers' first night of passion, and the influence of the flawed, doomed Severine on a generation of film noir heroines. Plus the railway itself is tangible, it is so lovingly shot. Not until "The Train" in the 1960s The Train [1964]does a locomotive star so magnificently again in a film.

But because it is trying to fit 500 pages into 90 minutes, there are many loose ends (What happens to Cabuche? Or Flore?). It isn't the best Renoir, and it might have been a better film if it had been more faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 June 2013
I decided to refer to this 1938 film by Jean Renoir as his own tale, since although the film is 'inspired by' Emil Zola's famous novel of 1890, Renoir has made a number of significant changes to Zola's original story, no doubt for dramatic effect. At the heart of Renoir's film is the doomed love affair between train driver Jacques Lantier (part of the Lantier family which forms one hereditary strand of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels), played by Jean Gabin and (the already married) Séverine Roubaud (Simone Simon), and whilst (for me) Renoir's film has a number of significant flaws, it is (primarily) these two central performances (particularly Gabin's) which lift it above a fairly middling work.

For me, one of the highlight features of the film is the series of sequences shot (by cinematographer Curt Courant) in Lantier's engine cabin, as Lantier, alongside co-worker Pecqueux (played by the great Julien Carette), shovel coal, faces soot-covered, cigarettes dangling from mouths, amidst the deafening roar of engine and wind as the train ploughs its speedy furrow through Paris and its environs. Indeed, Lantier has as much affection for his loco (named Lison) as for his female acquaintances, with whom his relationships are tainted as a result of his inherited condition of violent near-psychosis. In addition to Gabin and Simon, Fernand Ledoux also delivers a fine turn as Séverine's husband and co-conspirator, the initially calm and authoritative station-master, Roubaud, whose moods are transformed from smiling infatuation with his beautiful wife to grim-faced pessimism as he suspects that their nefarious act may be revealed to all and sundry.

Simon is simply stunning (visually, certainly) as the flirtatious, vulnerable and compliant Séverine, whose 'entrance scene' as she cuddles a small white kitten is reminiscent of (and, of course, pre-dates by some 20 years or so) the likes of Monroe and Bardot. Indeed, as was his wont, Renoir includes a number of risqué scenes redolent of, by turns, sexual repression and lasciviousness, involving both Simon and Blanchette Brunoy (who plays Jacques' other romantic interest, Flore). But, for me, it is Gabin, admittedly doing his by now familiar act of stunned, trance-like, staring silences (mixed with violent outbursts), whose acting persona is otherwise able to transcend the film's frequently overdone melodrama (not helped by Joseph Kosma's similarly overly dramatic score) to powerful and, ultimately, convincing effect. My only other comment on the film's acting is that the masterful Juilen Carette is woefully underused, though is still able to provide an hilarious and compelling turn as Jacques' pal and 'romantic adviser' (albeit one with rather loose personal morals).

Overall, therefore, certainly not a film to rank with either Renoir or Gabin's best, but one that has enough positives to make it worth seeing.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 29 December 2015
Some aspects of Renoir's exploration of the beast in Man make for a compelling and noisy ride. The train sequences are fantastic and shot with true grandeur; the sympathy for railway workers shining out of every frame and the poetry of the locomotives, of the lines at the gare Saint-Lazare shown from a high window looking onto the tracks; Gabin's amazing face and nature, his immense loneliness in the film; Carette as a sidekick; all these things are brilliant - as is the musical score. What weakens it a bit is the Simone Simon character, who is a very ambiguous creation. She may have been badly mistreated, but can anything justify attempting to get another man to kill her husband? We are meant to feel it as weighty and moving, probably, but there's something off-kilter about the emotions that may have to do with Renoir's transformation of harshness in the novel into doomed romanticism. The close look at the consequences of her turpitude makes for somewhat bleak viewing, but the fact that she was sexually abused as a young girl only serves to give a gloss to her amorality which really needs a more clear-eyed investigation. It pushes the whole concept into noir territory, where in so many respects it seems to look further. The film is outstanding in the effects it brings about using her as a catalyst, but next to, say, Nora Gregor's character in La regle du jeu, there is a lack of magic here, if an undeniable power. You just feel that Renoir, and possibly Zola, haven't quite come clean about this character, as if, in the case of the director, she is in a territory that doesn't quite come naturally to him, even though he does range very widely.
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La Bete Humaine is my favorite Renoir and one which tends to divide many of his critics and admirers. For me it's an exhilarating and involving piece of cinema with characters destroyed by and destroying themselves in events in much more credible circumstances than in Regle du Jeu, which gives it some real emotional and thematic weight beyond mere parlor games - not to mention having the thrill of seeing post WW1 French doomed romanticism evolving into proto-film noir before your very eyes. These characters truly do all have their reasons and find their attempts to control events and other people backfiring spectacularly as they lose control in a way that none of the mannequins in Regle do. But it's all subjective. Jean Gabin is superb, the use of locations exemplary and Simone Simon was a babe, even if she does try to bite!
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I'm flagging this up with 2 stars NOT because it's a bad film or anything like that.
If you are watching this then I can only assume you might be a Film Student (like my on who this was bought for) or someone who is into this genre and period of film making.

No, the reason I am flagging this up is this is a FRENCH film WITHOUT SUBTITLES.

I then had to buy another copy of this film that did come with Subtitles.
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"La Bete Humaine" (1938). This classic black and white French film, a bleak drama on the grand scale, was directed by the legendary Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion - Special Edition [DVD] [1937], La Regle Du Jeu [1939] [DVD]), son of the world-famous, greatly loved painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and was based on the lastingly popular novel of the same name,La Bete Humaine, by admired French author Emile Zola. It is set in the 1870's, and centers on a love triangle among French railway workers. The magnetic Jean Gabin, Quai Des Brumes [DVD] [1938]Pepe Le Moko [DVD] [1936], stars as Jacques Lantier, a train engineer who has seen Roubaux, (played by Fernand Ledoux of the Comedie Francaise), force his beautiful, childlike wife Severine Roubaux (Simone Simon) to help him murder her former lover. But Lantier is keeping quiet about it, because he wants Severine for himself. Ultimately Lantier and Severine do become lovers and she starts nagging him to kill her murderous husband.

Renoir delivers some of the most beautifully photographed pictures of trains and train tracks, and rural France, ever seen, making striking, poetic, thematic use of the railroad. He paints the self-sufficient railroad community in memorable color for a black and white film. He draws from the very beautiful Simon a performance that helped define the femme fatale forever more, as well as defining forever more a woman who really loves her cat. Gabin is never less than hypnotic as the tragic Lantier, who, apparently, has inherited some sort of family mental illness, possibly, as we know now, a chemical dysfunction of the brain, and is subject to uncontrollable violent outbursts. Lantier's inherited illness is truly the heart of the film. Personally, although all this is mentioned in a little preface to the film, I'm still not entirely sure what that's supposed to be about, except that it is apparently the heart of the Zola book, with which I am not familiar. Nevertheless, although this film is less famous than some of Renoir's others, it is certainly worth seeing for Renoir's direction, and Gabin's muscular performance.
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on 22 September 2013
Tastes vary, so I can only give my own impressions.

I did like the railway scenes, with some beautiful shots of express passenger locos at work and at rest, and the beautifully portrayed railway itself. Worth buying for this alone. The actions of the loco crew seemed credible and realistic. Also the snatches of conversation involving other railway workers seemed realistic.

I can't say I found the film's portrayal of events very convincing, with some irritating scenes - like in the rail yard where the would-be happy couple make no serious attempt at concealment, and the dropping of the iron bar does not result in any reaction from the patrolling person. From a psychological perspective, the out-of-character sudden turns of the Gabin character look rather corny by modern standards and don't lend the story any coherence.

This is recommended for lovers of railways and cinema of the 1930s. But I would hardly think it is one of the greatest films ever made.
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on 24 April 2014
the Jean Renoir Collection consists of seven films & is currently on offer at £20 to £25 - 2 star rating for this reason & not film
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on 20 December 2012
Although reasonably fluent, I found that optional sub-titles were sometimes useful. Lovely period black & white French film with a pull of the heart strings and views taken from the footplate of moving steam locomotive.
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