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Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960

Sunday, November 4, 2012
2:00 p.m. La bête humaine
Jean Renoir (France, 1938)

Imported 35mm Print!


(The Human Beast). 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 the 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 her class), lures him into her desperate life. “Gabin, with the slightest tremor in his face, could express the most violent feelings,” Renoir wrote; Lantier’s melancholy is nowhere better defined than in the split second when he looks into a mirror to see the eyes, not so much of a murderer, perhaps, as of a suicide.

—Judy Bloch

• Written by Renoir, based on 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, From Institut Français, permission Janus Films/Criterion Collection)