#818 La chienne
1931 // France // Jean Renoir
Criterion Release Date: 14 Jun 2016 (LINK)
It was not an easy task for the commence of the production in the first place. In order to persuade the producers that he could make a sound film within budget, Renoir made a one-hour Feydeau adaptation On purge bébé (1931) to prove his ability in transition from silent to sound (which, by the way, is a drab film, included in the Criterion release as a supplement). It was a bold move, as Renoir insisted on location shooting instead of cozy soundstage, and the use of sound recording on location instead of post-synchronised mixing. Hence, the occasional vague voice and dialogue from the film characters and the unmissable background noises (from footsteps to piano music, from flowing-water to street song) create a remarkable sense of presence and vividness which overcome any technical unsophistication.
Renoir sets up a puppet show prologue for introductory purpose, and emphasizes “the play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy”. It reinforces the distanced yet familiar theatrical relationship between spectators and performers, “it contains no moral message and has nothing to prove” as the puppet claimed, relieving the moralistic burden one may encounter at the end of the film. The prologue, from my point of view, is a lie, or more precisely, a cynical trap. Arguably, La chienne is both a drama and comedy. And the lesson it taught? “The characters are neither heores nor villains. They’re plain folk like you and me”, we just like the four principal characters, capable of doing harm to humanity.
Story-wise, it could be read as a vulgar pulp fiction. A married middle-aged man falls in love with a prostitute, eventually murders her out of jealousy and rage. There are some elements that reminds me of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) where a professor falls in love with a cabaret performer and ultimately loses everything, including prosperity and social supremacy. In La chienne, it is more satirical. Maurice Legrand (played subtly by the excellent Michel Simon) has been working as a cashier whilst being a Sunday painter, he is frequently mocked and berated by his shrew wife Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet) for the uselessness of his hobby. One night, the henpecked Maurice incidentally saves the prostitute Lulu (Janie Marèse) from her violent pimp and lover Dédé (Georges Flamant), and immediately has a crush on her. Lulu and Dédé exploit Maurice’s obsessive love on Lulu for money, by selling his paintings in the name of an American artist Clara Wood. Whereas Adèle’s long-thought-dead first husband Sergeant Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard) reappears as a tramp and blackmailer rather than a war hero Adèle thought he was. Whereupon, Maurice leaves Adèle with her first husband by a sly trick, but discovers the truth behind Lulu and Dédé’s plan.
The characters are stereotype in their best, and almost each act in a nonredeemable behaviour one way or another. The coward man Maurice could be murderous when he is humiliated to the breaking point, and be heartless when taking revenge; the fraud by the misogynist Dédé leads to his own demise, ironically due to the one account that he did not do, and the speech he gives in his own trial, the only moment that he speaks the truth, ultimately set his own fate; the femme fatale Lulu is a conflicting character, a victim to her own blindness in love and egotism. The ending of Maurice, being penniless and homeless as a tramp, could be foreshadowing Michel Simon’s later characters in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Jean Vigo’s L’atalante (1934), a carefree and self-indulgent man enjoying his lower class-life. Jean Renoir turns a farce into an exquisitely shot and rhetoric characters study, heralded his continuous masterful works in the 30s, from the pre-neorealism Toni (1935) and The Lower Depths (1936), to the political and social humanism in Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), La chienne is the announcement of the arrival of a true visionary artist.