‘La Chienne’ shines as classic of ’30s cinema

Opening and closing with a Punch and Judy routine, La Chienne uses the lineaments of French realism to generate tension; it’s a fable toughened into journalism. Jean Renoir’s 1931 adaptation of Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel follows henpecked Maurice (Michel Simon), a bank cashier who falls in with a prostitute named Lulu (Janie Marèse) whose pimp (Georges Flamant) in turn sees in this scenario the prime blackmail possibilities. It has elements of Zola’s Nana and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie but devoid of tragedy. The act of violence towards which La Chienne builds is not cathartic, nor is it a disinterring of buried manhood; Renoir’s triumph is to regard these people with curiosity instead of amusement. An irony stripped of malice.

So confident is Renoir’s second sound film that it seems to have willed sound into existence. His films from this period take a sensual delight in movement and people; when his characters laugh, smoke, and drink, he puts the audience in the room with them, muddying our sympathies. The famous Renoir moving camera wastes no time: the film’s first interesting moment is of a POV shot from a dumb waiter, a reminder that La Chienne deals with the lower middle class. Renoir’s trick, perfected in Grand Illusion (e.g. think of von Rauffenstein’s geraniums in Grand Illusion) but much in evidence here, is to fade in to a closeup of an object: a pack of cards, a canvas, a letter, a foamy pint of beer. Through these totems, Renoir says, we can understand these men and women. Note also the director establishes Maurice’s reticence in visual terms. Several times the camera hesitates before stopping on him, as if in disbelief that this mouse of a man is the star. Similarly Renoir sustains the aura of felt life with his own reticence — a strategic reticence. During Maurice and Lulu’s first encounter on the street and the eventual exchange of addresses, the camera holds them at a distance, then edges closer as if it had gotten permission (the soundtrack buzzes with street noise). Thanks to deep focus — neighbors polish a balcony in the background while Maurice and his wife argue — this couple is situated in a community, whose citizens hum the popular hits and perform on the streets whenever possible. I’m tempted to note the influence of Renoir’s affiliations with the Popular Front on his aesthetic choices; I’m more tempted to ascribe Renoir’s socialist leanings precisely on his communal aesthetics. Even at his most isolated — think Jean Gabin in La Bête Humaine — his men and women never behave like atomized figures.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the great delicacy that Janice Marèse and the marvelous Michel Simon bring to Lulu and Maurice; if Renoir took to sound with no evident struggle, then Simon brought the same attention to gesture he learned as a silent film actor and would perfect on Boudu Saved From Drowning. Given the Criterion Collection’s redoubtable print, I expect to see La Chienne join Renoir’s other masterpieces. If Renoir had only written and directed La Chienne, Boudu Saved From Drowning, Madame Bovary, The Lower Depths, and A Day in the Country and never dreamed of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, his reputation would have been assured. But worry not about reputations. Watch La Chienne and urge Criterion to get its hands on Toni, La Marseillaise and The Crime of Monsieur Lange.

A Day in the Country is available on Criterion Blu-Ray.

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