Jean Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” is contradictory by design. It is a film that explores the darkest aspects of human nature, and how someone can be compelled to act against their own better judgement without any explanation. It is also a very humane film which shows compassion and feeling towards its many flawed characters, and through that it brings a certain warmth into a cold, dark world.
The film tells the story of Lantier (Jean Gabin), a lonely train conductor, who drives his locomotive between Paris and Le Havre every day. Lantier remains solitary, and there is a certain affinity he has for his train, which is where he feels the most content and in control. The reason for his isolated lifestyle, is that he is prone to uncontrollable fits of violence, which can happen at any given moment, but mostly when he’s around women he’s drawn to. Lantier believes his affliction stems from his relatives, who were raging alcoholics with a violent streak, and although he has remained sober, he feels he has inherited this sickness from them.
Things get more complicated when Lantier gets involved with the beautiful Severine (Simone Simon), the wife of the local station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux). Roubaud has become jealous of her infidelity with a local rich man, and so he decides to kill him on a train one night forcing Severine to watch. Lantier happens to be on the train when the murder is committed and he is the only one who sees Roubaud and Severine leave the scene of the crime, however when he’s questioned by police, he chooses to lie. Why he does this becomes apparent, when he confesses his love to Severine, and the two begin an affair, yet Roubaud is still in love with his wife, and is unwilling to let her go easily.
“La Bete Humaine” has elements of film noir in it, and some may call it that, even though it predates most films that were considered noir. This has a more romantic feel to it, with Renoir sometimes bathing his characters in warm tones, and soft lighting, giving it a poetic melancholia. The characters don’t really act hard boiled or cynical one might expect from a film such as this, rather they are more or less just sad individuals, that one might pity. They are all victims of their own shortcomings, and despite how they might feel towards one another, we see their human nature get in the way of their own happiness, and they suffer because of it.
Jean Gabin embodies this duality of human warmth and inner darkness with his portrayal of Lantier. Gabin was thought to be the french Humphrey Bogart, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the way both actors seem to carry a world weariness in their eyes, as if they’ve lived a past full of regret and heartache. Gabin was a big, and bulky actor, which worked very well for this roll, in that you could sense him being capable of causing harm if he wanted to, but also that he could emit tenderness with a gentle disposition.
Gabin keeps his anger at bay, and constantly wrestles with his inner demons as if he’s holding on to his humanity for dear life. There are many outbursts in this film, mostly caused by men towards women, yet Gabin never raises his voice. There is a calmness and a quiet reserve in his performance, speaking just above a whisper, something that can be unnerving, but also sad.
It’s that need for connection Lantier craves, but fulfilling that might destroy him. It’s a tragic ordeal, and Gabin masterfully underplays it to express someone who is inexpressible.
In many ways, “La Bete Humaine” is a very conventional film, it plays with suspense, and danger one would come to expect from a thriller. It has a steady pace, set by the movement of Lantier’s train which becomes a character in itself.
The train reveals much of the pent up rage bubbling under the surface of the film. It races along the tracks, moving into deep, dark tunnels, filling Lantier’s face with soot, and brimming with hot fire from its furnace. The train is seen as a wild beast, brewing with an intensity that cannot be turned down until it reaches its final destination. It is the constant motif in the film, and is the thing Lantier puts most of himself into, it’s no wonder he feels most at home when he’s riding it.
“La Bete Humaine” is a genre film in only the way a filmmaker like Jean Renoir can make one. He was a director who was always concerned with the complications of being human. He was fascinated by both the triumphs and tragedies of life, and he had a great affection for all aspects and nuances of his characters.
The tragedy of “La Bete Humaine” is in the fact that we have come to love these characters, just as Renoir has loved them. He asks us to pity these people, as we would hope to be pitied if we were ever to give in to our darker selves, which Renoir reveals is something even the best person must always try to rise above.