La Bete Humaine

I pop this DVD in the machine, expecting to see a warm, humanist Renoir comedy/drama like Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion.  Turns out it’s practically a freakin’ Hitchcock movie.

This is a good thing.

A noir before it had a name (1938), La Bete Humaine is a dark tale of lust and murder set amid the railyards of 1930s Paris.  Noir, hell: the plot is practically a chapter from Sin City: there’s a good-looking working-class lug who worries that he might actually be a psychotic killer, a mild-mannered middle-management type who is driven to murder by jealousy and a femme fatale who lures men into murdering each other for her, all the while playing the weak, innocent victim.

Because it’s Renoir, of course, things are more complicated than that.  As the guy says in Rules of the Game, “Everyone has their reasons.”  You never look at the psycho as anything remotely like a monster, the jealous husband is never belittled or scorned and the femme is both plainly manipulative and sadly victimized.

It’s a real pleasure to watch an artist so effortlessly and confidently in command of his tools.  The movie is endlessly suspenseful and surprising while never becoming sensational or italicized.  It’s Hitchcock without the devices and the remote coldness.

I’m not overly familiar with Zola, but I’m surprised at how pulpy his sense of plot is.  I worked on an adaptation of Therese Raquin a while back, and that book not only has lust and murder and intrigue, but also ghosts and hallucinations and an operatic level of dread.  I have no idea what the novel of Bete is like but it sounds like it’s just a notch more highbrow than, say, Jim Thompson.

The notes refer to the plot as a “triangle” (between the lug, the femme and the husband), but I detect a fourth player: Lison, the locomotive that the lug (Jean Gabin) works on.  Renoir gives the train a full 7-minute wordless introduction as Gabin guides it thundering down the track, through tunnels and into the station.  We see that Gabin has an intimate relationship with the engine, which he underscores later on when someone asks him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.  “Oh, I do have a girlfriend,” he says, “Lison.”  (Just the fact that he’s given his locomotive a name, much less a woman’s name, says plenty right there.)  Later, when he, without preamble, almost strangles a girlfriend to death on an embankment, the only thing that stops him is a train going by: it’s almost as though he’s in a carnal embrace and interrupted by his “wife” entering the room.  He breaks off the strangulation and stomps off, guilty and disgusted with himself.  Not that he almost killed a woman but because he feels weak and out of control.  (Strangest of all, the woman sympathises with him and they walk off together, finishing their date as though nothing had happened [apparently they’d come to that impasse before].)  We get the sense that Lison is a stabilizing force in Gabin’s life, that he lavishes all his affection and labor over this locomotive because if he ever stops working, he’ll have no choice but to murder someone.  And indeed, once he does finally murder someone, he turns himself in not to the police but to Lison, as though the locomotive is the only one who can judge him.


3 Responses to “La Bete Humaine”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    It seems obligatory that any more named “Le Bete ________” should be a noir film.

  2. toliverchap says:


    Thank you once agian for this live journal. I’ve made quite a list of movies that I’ll need to check out when I get a free weekend. Your reveiws are concise and not filled with too many spoilers. This movie sounds right up my alley. Now I’m off to go watch Kane again. I think this time I’ll pay attention to smirking.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Edification

      Thank you for your kind words, but I really don’t consider this blog any kind of review journal. It’s more like “things that crossed my mind while I was watching a movie.”

      I’m never sure what to do about spoilers. Mostly I talk about movies that have been out for quite some time (like La Bete Humaine) or more recent movies that I can assume most people have already seen. Us screenwriters use “surprises” and “twist endings” all the time in our daily work, so talking about them doesn’t really ruin movies for us, so I try to walk a line between discussion and dissection.