At Alliance Française on Fridays at 8 pm
At Alliance Française on Friday, February 20: La Bête humaine / The Human Beast (1938) by Jean Renoir – 100 mins – France Drama. Black and white. English subtitles. Generally favorable reviews: 79 out of 100.
With Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernard Ledoux.
Séverine and her husband Roubaud kill their former employer on a train. Jacques an engineer witnesses the murder but does not report them to the police as he is deeply in love with Severine. However, during an epileptic fit, he kills her...
– Alliance description
Film Society of Lincoln Center: "A love story of the railroads," transformed from the Zola novel into a darkly predestined narrative, a beautiful example of "poetic realism" at its height. In this railwayman driven to murder, Jean Gabin perfectly incarnates a flawed soul who falls in love with another man's wife (Simone Simon, ever catlike) and plots with her to kill her inconvenient husband. Some remarkable sequences depicting the milieu in which the protagonist works and plays are shot in a simple, nearly documentary style that catches the rhythms of life on and around trains; and a brutal murder intercut with scenes from workers' festivities is not to be forgotten.
DVD Verdict, Judge Steve Evans: Jean Renoir worked in almost every film genre and even invented a few, including the social satire (starting with Boudu Saved From Drowning). Here, he creates a classic noir years before French critics even came up with the label "films noir"—the dark, nihilistic, and cynical cinema that American studios began churning out in the 1940s on thin budgets. Here, he assembled a superb cast of absolutely authentic-looking character actors. Renoir also reunited with Gabin on this picture after their collaboration a year earlier on Grand Illusion.
A superstar in his native France, Gabin was only 34 when he made La Bête Humaine. And yet, he appears much older—conveying the weariness of a man so confused and disappointed by life that he could be easily entranced by the seductive charms of a duplicitous woman.
Simon Simone, the quintessential French femme fatale, would later appear in the most famous of RKO Producer Val Lewton's effective low-budget chillers, Cat People and its sequel, Curse of the Cat People.
Renoir himself appears in an amusing cameo as an outspoken, train-riding hobo whose dialogue is thinly veiled commentary on the moral themes explored in the film. But this is mainly a film dealing in dread and tragedy.
La Bête Humaine contains several scenes of such tightly-coiled suspense that it is not possible to watch without wondering how often Hitchcock held private screenings of the picture for his own education.
In addition to a lifelong fascination with human frailties, Renoir possessed a genetic talent for capturing stunning visuals (he is the son of French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir). Here the director deploys symbolism both subtle and overt to makes his points about fatalism and emotional entanglements. Subtle symbols include the frequent tracking shots from the engineer's perspective on the locomotive, as this inexorable forward movement of the train sweeps the protagonist along to his destiny. More obvious is the camera's chaste panning from a lovemaking scene during a thunderstorm to the lingering shot of a waterspout gushing into a bucket until it slows to a trickle.
La Bête Humaine benefits especially from stark black and white cinematography by the director's nephew Claude Renoir, whose genius with a camera would never surpass his work on Jean Renoir's first Technicolor film, The River. Modern audiences can revel in Claude Renoir's insistence on authenticity: Only one rear-projection image is used (at the climax, as an obvious necessity); every other train sequence was shot on the tracks at 60 mph. During a 45-year career, Claude Renoir would also frame John Frankenheimer's The French Connection II and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me, but the work for his uncle is unparalleled.
At Alliance Française on Friday, February 27: Quai des Orfèvres / Jenny Lamour (1947) by Henri-Georges Clouzot – 95 mins – France Crime/ Drama. Black and white. English subtitles. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 89/85 out of 100.
With Louis Jouvet, Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair, Simone Renant, Rene Blancard, Charles Dullin.
Suzy Delair stars as Jenny Lamour, an ambitious music hall singer who wants to be a star and is willing to befriend the lecherous old men who ogle her act, inspiring the jealousy of Jenny's husband Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier). One particular fan of Jenny's is a wealthy financial backer who extends repeated invitations to the entertainer to join him at fine restaurants and his expansive mansion. Armed with a gun, Maurice goes to the estate to confront his rival one night but discovers that the master of the house is already dead, his wife having smashed a bottle of champagne over his head to stave off a sexual advance. Soon, a gruff but dedicated detective, Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) is on the case, with Maurice taking the heat for Jenny...
– Alliance description
A thriller full of rich complex characters and a dark world view, perhaps attributable to Henri-Georges Clouzot's own experience with Le Corbeau, his previous film which was banned by both Nazi Germany and his French homeland. Brilliantly transforming a classic whodunit plot, the Gallic “Master of Suspense” takes us from the wings and dressing rooms of the Parisian music hall and circus worlds to the drab, airless corridors and holding cells of the Quai's Criminal Investigations Department, in a blend of social realism and psychological cruelty that became his trademark. One of the uncontested masterpieces of the postwar French cinema.
At Alliance Française on Friday, March 6: Le Jour se lève / Daybreak (1939) by Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert – 89 mins – France Crime/ Drama/ Romance/ Thriller. Black and white. English subtitles. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 82 out of 100.
With Jean Gabin, Arletty, Jacqueline Laurent, Bernard Blier.
Francois, a sympathetic factory worker, kills Valentin with a gun. He locked himself in his furnished room and starts remembering how he was led to murder. He met once Francoise, a young fleurist, and they fell in love. But Francoise was gotten round by Valentin, a dog trainer, a Machiavellian guy...
– Alliance description
A tough romantic has his love brutalized by the world and, after committing a crime of passion, barricades himself inside his apartment. It comes as no surprise that a film created in France during 1939, under the cloud of impending war, would be doom-laden and pessimistic in tone, but since it’s a film directed by Marcel Carné and written by Jacques Prévert, it's something of a certainty in any year.