La chienne d. Jean Renoir (1931) Spine: #818 Blu-ray Release Date: June 14, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
Last year I had a lovely Renoir marathon after Criterion released their outstanding edition of Renoir’s 1936 film A Day in the Country (my review here). It was one of the most wonderful explorations of a filmography I can remember. Renoir has so many masterpieces in the 1930s alone, several of which I still have to see. One early film I’d heard quite a bit about, and that is out today from Criterion, is Renoir’s second sound film, La chienne, from 1931. I was keen to go back to the beginning of Renoir’s sound career, and this release, which also includes Renoir’s first sound film, On perge bébé (which, presented here as a supplement to its successor, suggests what most feel: Renoir’s mastery begins with La chienne).
At this time, having just made my acquaintance with this film, it doesn’t compare with the films Renoir was about to make — A Day in the Country, Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game — but it is a clear beauty. For me, this beauty is primarily drawn from its star and regular in Renoir’s films of this period, the magnificent Michel Simon.
In La chienne, Simon plays a man who does not live up to his name: Maurice Legrand. Legrand fancies himself an artist misplaced in nearly every sphere of life. At work, he does not fit in with the business or its businessmen. At home he is unhappily married to a woman who frequently thinks back to her true love, a hero, she claims, who was killed in World War I.
One evening, after undergoing ridicule from workmates for refusing to keep the night alive with them (and those they’re going to hire), Legrand is walking home when he sees a man hitting a woman. Legrand jumps in and, in his mind at least, saves the woman from this brute. I say “in his mind” not because he’s misread the situation — the man (Dédé, played by Georges Flamant) is a brute — but because the naïve Legrand does not understand that the woman (Lulu, played by Janie Marèse) does not want to be saved.
Lulu is a prostitute, and Dédé is her pimp. She loves him, and he loves exploiting her. Legrand unwittingly becomes a sucker in a love triangle, in which no one loves him. Dédé sees that Legrand is falling for Lulu, and what’s more he sees the paintings that he can sell, if people think Lulu, under another name, was a famous painter who created the works.
Lulu plays the lover because she wants to be loved by Dédé. This is where we see how wonderful Simon is. If we first felt bad for him for his cramped state of living, and we now pity him for his naïve, unrequited love, we may also detest him a bit. What after all does he think he can offer Lulu, a truly pitiful character. If we look closely, we see that Legrand was more pathetic than pitiful, more proud than humble, and Legrand has no trouble suggesting all of the above in any given scene.
This works beautifully when both Lulu and Dédé have their life’s turned upside down when Legrand figures out he’s being played for a fool. They have been detestable characters, and perhaps they bring their fate about through their own faults, particularly the criminal Dédé, but they also become pitiful. Fortune has a way of changing.
The film begins with a puppet theater. The puppets argue about what type of film is about to be presented, a film about Him, Her, and The Other. The last word on the subject is that it is just a story about life, neither a comedy nor a tragedy. And it has no moral. It just is, like life. Characters don’t get what they deserve; they only get what chance throws at them.