JEAN Renoir’s dark, disturbing psychological thriller, La Bête Humaine, has launched a season of work by French actor Jean Gabin by playing to a sell-out house at the British Film Institute.
Unfettered by the constraints of the Hays Code in the USA at the time, Renoir gives full reign to the murderous brutality and seething, brooding sexuality of the characters in Emile Zola’s novel.
In this 1938 film, Gabin gives one of the best performances of his career as the train driver Jacques Lantier who witnesses a murder but remains silent to protect the killer’s wife, Séverine, with whom he has fallen in love.
Séverine lures Lantier into an affair and persuades him to murder her husband.
But she doesn’t bargain for Lantier’s mental anguish which sees him spiral into an emotional abyss, where he simmers, glowers and burns until he kills her in a fit of despair.
Gabin plays his role with understated menace. Renoir was fond of saying of his favourite actor: “Gabin could express the most violent emotion with a mere quiver of his impassive face.”
Simone Simon, plays the duplicitous Séverine with all the feline slyness of a French Margaret Lockwood (she even shares her distinctive centre parting).
Most of the action takes place in or around trains, giving the movie a rhythm of relentless inevitability as the characters hurtle along briskly and unstoppably to their preordained termini.
Renoir's masterful use of foreboding shadows and prying close-ups and Gabin's tortured and disturbing performance which lurches in and out of an increasingly dangerous psychosis, leave us in no doubt that only a desperate tragedy awaits the central characters.
The film is a classic of the pessimistic realism which was growing as a genre in France in the 1930s and which lay the foundations for the film noir of the following decade.
Jean Gabin as Lantier with Simone Simon as Séverine
As an interesting aside, in the foyer afterwards, an elderly gent approached me in that affable, uninhibited way elderly gents do and announced he had last seen the film in 1940 before proudly announcing he was 90.
I quickly calculated that he had been 18 at the time and told him that my last viewing had been in 1979, when I too was 18.
Remarkably, we had both been surprised at how different our reaction to the film had been as teenagers.
As youths, we had watched a thriller with romantic interest thrown in, a kind of tragic version of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which was made in the same year and also set on a train.
But as grown men – 33 years later for me and 72 for him – we had watched something which had disturbed and saddened us. Not an adventure film but a lament for the frailty of human nature. “The film hasn’t changed but you have!” as he put it. And rather well I thought.
The Jean Gabin season runs at the BFI until May 31. This film was a sell out and the others are selling out fast too.
Films on show are: Le Chat, Des Gens Sans Importance, Le Jour se Lève, Maigret tend un Piège, Melodie en Sous-sol, Pépé le Moko, Le Plaisir, Le Quai des Brumes, Razzia sur la Chnouf, Touchez pas au Grisbi, La Traversée de Paris.
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