by Allan Fish
(France 1938 100m) DVD1/2
Aka. The Human Beast; Judas Was a Woman
A black smoke
p Robert Hakim d/w Jean Renoir novel Emile Zola ph Curt Courant ed Marguerite Renoir m Joseph Kosma art Eugène Lourié
Jean Gabin (Jacques Lantier), Simone Simon (Severine), Julien Carette (Pecqueaux), Fernard Ledoux (Roubaud), Jean Renoir (Cabuche), Blanchette Brunoy (Flore), Gérard Landry (Dauvergne’s son), Jacques Berlioz (Grandmorin), Colette Regis (Victoire), Jenny Helia (Philomene),
Whenever I think of Jean Renoir’s classic adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of violence and lust on the railways, I am reminded of that memorable speech made by Edward G.Robinson’s Barton T.Keyes in Double Indemnity referring to the couple who commit a murder being tied together on a train ride on which the final destination is the cemetery. Though in the films of Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu trains are equated with the notion of moving from home and displacement amongst communities, in French cinema they have always been a symbolic reference point for studies of sexual obsession, dating right back to Abel Gance’s La Roue. The almost phallic significance of various shots of locomotives entering tunnels, coupled with the deliberately fatalistic script, combine to evoke an erotic web of treachery, uncontrollable violence and sex by the sidings. For some time it was perhaps overlooked against the poetic realist films of Marcel Carné and with coming between Renoir’s more accepted masterworks, La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu, but this remains one of the great French films of the thirties.
Set around Paris’ Gare St Lazare, the film follows the fortunes of train driver Jacques Lantier, who turns his back on a local girl, Flore, and unwittingly finds himself embroiled in a web of murder. Assistant stationmaster Roubaud is mad with jealousy when he realises his young wife Severine slept with his superior to get him the job and he makes the fateful decision of killing the said superior on a train. They are seen coming out of the deceased’s carriage by Lantier, who Severine persuades to keep quiet, and they eventually begin an affair. Severine, both frightened of her husband and wanting an escape, tries to persuade Lantier to kill her husband.
Much has been said about the ambivalence towards its antihero, and Renoir made the decision to eliminate the portions of Zola’s novel that explained Gabin’s psychotic red mist, from the history of violence in his family to his alcoholism – only hinted at in his refusal to accept a drink when offered and in the shot of him looking into the mirror after killing his beloved and seeing a decanter in front of the glass. This does, however, allow the story to concentrate on the central triangle, and allows the film to build up momentum through to the denouement when Gabin’s Lantier effectively sends himself, and nearly his train, off the tracks. I think it was a justifiable decision.
There are essences of what would become film noir mixed in with the inescapable poetic realist shots of the rain-sodden ground around the railway terminus. Jacques and Severine’s first sexual consummation perfectly capturing what Graham Greene would call “the short, sharp lust worked out in a wooden platelayer’s shed among shunted trucks under the steaming rain.” Gorgeously shot by Curt Coirant, and with arguably a career best score from Joseph Kosma, the film is an incandescent delight to both the eyes and ears, and the performances are suitably legendary. Gabin is as magnificent as ever as the tortured Jacques, and Carette and Ledoux are as reliable as ever in support. At the centre, though, is Simon, the first great French femme fatale – maybe second, if you can remember back to Musidora – and the epitome of thirties cinematic pulchritude, a siren drawing not ships onto the rocks, but trains into the sidings. It’s a prototype role for all the Hollywood femmes fatales that followed, just as the film was both a blueprint for the Hollywood noirs and a throwback to Renoir’s earlier La Chienne. Like that film, it was remade less successfully by Fritz Lang in Hollywood, as Human Desire.