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La bête humaine, October 8

The Mechanical Age

Sunday, October 8, 2006
5:30 p.m. La bête humaine
Jean Renoir (France, 1938)

(The Human Beast). "La bête humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. . . . The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings, and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry, or rather had supplied it to the actors" (Jean Renoir). Renoir's adaptation of Zola's famous novel, as André Bazin noted, avoided entirely the novel's particularly strained "cinematic vision" while rendering its background of social conflict in documentary-inspired visuals. Jean Gabin earned a place in the hearts of the French people with his portrayal of the working-class hero/victim, Lantier, a devoted engineer on the Paris-Le Havre line who is haunted by the threat of madness inherited from his alcoholic forebears. The stationmaster's wife, Séverine (the feline Simone Simon), herself both femme fatale and victim (of her sex and class), lures him into her desperate life. As with Louis Malle's later Human, All Too Human, the title resonates with ambivalence toward man and machine.

• Written by Renoir, from the novel by Emile Zola. Photographed by Curt Courant, Claude Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux, Julien Carette. (105 mins, In French with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, Courtesy French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, permission Janus/Criterion Collection)

Preceded by short:

Pacific 231 (Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, U.S.S.R., 1931). Tsekhanovsky creates a montage worthy of Arthur Honegger's great symphonic tribute to the steam locomotive. (12 mins, B&W, 35mm, PFA Collection)

• (Total running time: 117 mins)