LA CHIENNE (Renoir, 1931)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 14, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long
“La Chienne” (1931) translates into English as “The Bitch” and there's no idiom at play. The title refers directly to a character. As far as which character, take your pick. There's no shortage of candidates.
Being a feminine noun, la chienne most obviously points to Lulu (Janie Marese), the young French prostitute with an equal affinity for using men and being used by them. Lulu might be a more sympathetic figure if her schemes exuded even the faintest spark of originality or ambition. But she demonstrates no sense of agency or even any hint of an inner life, preferring to coast along on her beauty, always taking the path of least resistance.
Her abusive pimp boyfriend Dédé (Georges Flamant) is too lazy even for that. If there's any bitch you'll want to slap in this movie, it's this miserable bastard. Dédé's “career” consists exclusively of leeching off of Lulu and her various marks; he sells her body, cashes her checks, and blows through the money by the weekend. Indeed, he feels constitutionally entitled to do so, and throws a hissy fit any time his plans for a permanent free ride meet even the slightest resistance. Dédé doesn't care who he hurts, and the only reason he doesn't smack Lulu around even more is that he doesn't have to; the minimum effort to ensure her obedience and devotion will suffice.
Thank goodness for Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon). A meek, middle-aged cashier trapped in a loveless marriage, Legrand seizes his chance to be a hero when he rescues Lulu from a beating by
Dédé on a stairway late at night. Lulu expresses her gratitude quite emphatically to Legrand but, alas, she's really just running a con on him. Love? Of course it's not love. After all, Legrand is, as Lulu notes with a disgusted shudder, forty-two years old! She just lies back and thinks of dear, sweet Dédé...
Poor old buzzard. Finally, we have someone to root for... at least until exasperation sets in. The marginalized Legrand is so desperate for affection he passively submits to being exploited by Lulu and her pimp boyfriend like, well, like just another bitch. Legrand's eyes need to be pried open “Clockwork Orange”-style before he can see the obvious, as we've seen all along. Our poor Casper Milquetoast does not react well to the demolition of his delusions, and he winds up trying his best to outbitch everyone. Add in Legrand's cartoon shrew of a wife (Magdeleine Berubet), his openly derisive co-workers, and a bunch of art patrons (Legrand paints on the side) less interested in art than in getting laid and the cosmology of “La Chienne” is pretty much bitches all the way down.
Director Jean Renoir, adapting a novel by Georges de la Fouchardiere, depicts a society in which everyone is either a commodity to be swapped or the broker looking to do the swapping, the modern neoliberal's idea of utopia. This terminal sourness could grow tedious and does, just a bit, in a final act that marches to the site where so many good narratives have gone to die: the courthouse.
However, “La Chienne” also has the distinction of being Renoir's first major sound film (his second sound project overall) and the director wasted little time demonstrating his mastery of cinema's newest creative tool. Much of the film is shot on location in the Montmartre section of Paris, where Renoir insisted on recording direct sound. The result is an immersive, evocative experience in which the characters skulk about the nighttime streets (location shooting at night being no small logistical feat in 1931) with the hollow, distant sounds of the city as a constant ambient backdrop lending a naturalistic feel to their melodramatic intrigues. They always sound like they're speaking from a real location, which they were in this pre-dubbing era. Theodor Sparkuhl's rich black-and-white cinematography provides the perfect visual accompaniment to the audio track.
Michel Simon's slump-shouldered, gray little man feels right at home on these shadowy, sparsely populated streets, ultimately no more significant than the random street lamp or faded wrought-iron fence. Simon, considered by some to be France's greatest actor, worked with many top directors, but his roles in this film and Renoir's “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932) feel like career-defining works. It's hard to believe their creative partnership was so brief.
The cretinous Dédé was Georges Flamant's first film role and he's infuriatingly convincing as an amoral user and abuser. A career as a go-to bad guy never quite materialized, though Flamant would work with Abel Gance and, near the end of his career, appeared in Francois Truffaut's “The 400 Blows” (1959). Janie Marese is given a fairly thankless role as the stereotyped prostitute with a heart of stone, though she plays it with verve; if she's shrilly one-note, blame Renoir for not asking for much more. Shortly after production wrapped on “La Chienne,” Flamant and Marese, who fell in love during shooting, left for a romantic vacation. A few days later, Flamant lost control of their car; he survived, but 23-year-old Marese was killed.
“La Chienne” is somewhat less known today than Renoir's signature films such as “La Grande Illusion” (1937) and “La regle du jeu” (1939), but it kicked off the most-celebrated phase of his career (by which I mean the rest of his career) and also proved that the advent of sound was a golden opportunity rather than an obstacle for the young filmmaker. If Renoir had been laboring in the shadow of his father, the monumental painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “La Chienne” may be the moment where he stepped almost entirely out of it. Which adds a bit of an edge to a shot in the final scene where an aged Legrand contemplates a real (Auguste) Renoir painting in a shop window.
The film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio, that nifty little ratio that only existed for a few years during the early sound era. The high-def transfer is sourced from a 2014 digital restoration. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35 mm safety fine-grain made from the original 35 mm nitrate negative. The film was restored in 2K resolution at Digimage Classic by Les Films du Jeudi and the Cinematheque francaise, with the support of the CNC and the participation of the Franco-America Cultural Fund DGA – MPA – SACEM – WGAW.”
The final product is an impressive high-def transfer with sharp black-and-white contrast and a richly detailed image with only the occasional soft spot. The film is remarkably damage-free for a 1931 film and if the restoration work was extensive it hasn't resulted in any noticeable loss of detail. A great job all around.
The linear PCM Mono track is crisp and flat and does a fine job of preserving the “hollow” tone of the film's direct sound design. It's a bit tinny and not at all dynamic or attention-grabbing and that's how it should sound. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Criterion has packed quite a few extras into this release.
A Jean Renoir Introduction (3 min.) to “La Chienne” originally broadcast on French TV on Jan 1, 1961 can be played ahead of the film and shouldn't spoil much.
“On Purge Bébé” (1931, 52 min.) was Renoir's first sound film. Based on a play by Georges Feydeau and co-starring Michel Simon, this French farce was mostly Renoir's attempt to prove he could deliver a sound film on time, under budget, and maybe even turn a profit, a necessity since some of his silent films had failed to do so. As for the film, well, it's a French farce. I lasted about fifteen minutes. But it was a hit that paved the way for the many great Renoir features that would follow, so let's celebrate its inclusion here. It's also distinguished by featuring the sound of a toilet flushing off-screen.
In a new interview (2016, 25 min.), Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner speaks at length about Renoir's transition from silent cinema to the sound era. Some of Renoir's earliest films were actually funded by the sale of some of his father's paintings, so it's easy to understand why Renoir felt the need to establish his own identity both as an artist and as a viable businessman. Faulkner also offers plenty of information about the film's production and the various cast members involved.
“Jean Renoir: Le Patron: Michel Simon” (1967, 95 min.) is merely part two of a three-part documentary on Renoir directed by filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette. This program begins with a few film clips then consists primarily of an after-dinner conversation between Jean Renoir and Michel Simon. This is no doubt a thrill for Renoir and/or Simon fans, but this rambling schmooze-fest is primarily a chance to indulge in some old-fashioned hero worship. Which is just fine, but maybe not 95-minutes fine.
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a comprehensive essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau.
Criterion has produced a package which includes Jean Renoir's first two sound films and a passel of extras, along with a top-notch high-def transfer. You can't ask for much more.