In Emile Zola’s story La Bête Humaine, the “human beast” is train driver Jacques Lantier, a man whose family line is full of fuck-ups, alcoholics and brutes. He keeps his passions in check, just about, by focusing rigidly on his job, and in particular on his locomotive, which he calls by the female name Lison.
There’s an intertitle card telling us all this at the start of Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1938 adaptation of the story. However, the “beast” of Renoir’s version might actually not be Lantier at all. Instead it could be Séverine, the lusty wife of a plodding stationmaster in Le Havre, where Lantier is forced to spend some time when his engine breaks down.
Renoir blocks out his characters at speed. Lantier the bluff, masculine type, played by Jean Gabin in the sort of role you could imagine Robert De Niro playing in his prime. Fernand Ledoux as Roubaux, the principled, decent but stolid stationmaster with a much younger wife, Séverine (Simone Simon), who’s introduced in wowsers style – wanton pout, fancy clothes, a toy dog. Séverine can lay claim to be the first femme fatale. In some parts of the world this film went by the more obviously film noir title Judas Was a Woman.
And then some background, sketching in hidden reefs of psychology for both Lantier and Séverine. His visit to see his godmother while he’s stuck in Le Havre, where he almost rapes the godmother’s daughter down by the river. Time were different etc etc and the exact nature of the relationship between Lantier and Flore (Blanchette Burnoy) is unclear, but even down he decades it’s obvious something inappropriate is going on. Meanwhile, Séverine’s visit to her godfather, Monsieur Grandmorin, a Mr Big of the railways, reveals another strangely transgressive relationship. Were Séverine and Grandmorin once lovers? Is he her father? Is he her father and her lover?
These two emotional disaster zones intersect when Séverine’s husband, Roubaud, is driven to murder Grandmorin on a train and Lantier sees enough of the deed to finger Roubaud and his accompanying wife trouble. To keep Lantier’s mouth shut, the wife decides to seduce him. And here Simone Simon, turning all the seductress knobs to 11, demonstrates why she was a massive star and the movie moves firmly into the realm of tragedy.
You cannot imagine Hollywood in 1938 (the year of Bringing Up Baby and Boys Town) going anywhere near material this dark. Fritz Lang got about halfway there with 1954’s Human Desire, his version of the same source material. Renoir, rather than sensationalise it, just lays it all out in a matter of fact style. Strangely, it just makes things even darker (and more enjoyable).
Over the top of it all he also delivers one of the great train movies of all time, with enough detail of driving the iron beasts to satisfy the inner train nut. The film has clearly been plundered by John Frankenheimer for The Train, which is perhaps the train movie to beat all others.
Gabin is to this movie exactly what Burt Lancaster was to The Train and delivers a Mount Rushmore performance as Lantier. Gabin learned how to drive a train for the film, and handles all the various knobs and levers like a man who’s done it a thousand times.
You could ignore the murky story of sexual transgression, betrayal and death, and the trainspotter aspect, and Gabin’s and Simon’s world-weary yet passionate performances and the film would still be delivering, thanks to lighting so lustrous you could bathe in it. It’s by the brilliant Curt Courant and its high Hollywood style (key lights, hair lights, shadow fills etc) complements Renoir’s painterly command of the frame (he was the son of the famous impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir and the talent seems to have been inherited).
You could even watch it for the clothes. Gabin’s tweed suit is so solid and well made it looks bulletproof. Or for the film’s influence on Martin Scorsese. With adjustments for period etc, this could easily be a Scorsese film.
I watched the Studio Canal version of the film, which even though unrestored is largely in great shape (the odd slight degradation here and there). There is also a restored Criterion version, and since Criterion seems to be the failsafe way to go it’s what I’m linking to below.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022