La Chienne (1931)

aka: Isn't Life a Bitch?
Comedy / Drama / Crime / Romance


La Chienne photo
Maurice Legrand is a middle-aged bank cashier who is unhappily married to a shrewish wife. His only pleasure in life is his hobby, oil painting. One evening, he meets a young prostitute, Lulu, who has just been beaten by her drunken pimp, Dédé. Maurice escorts Lulu home and, as they part, he realises he is in love with her. He offers Lulu a new apartment, where he can meet her and store his paintings. Despite Maurice's kindness, Lulu does not love her benefactor. She is still attached to her beloved Dédé, even though he continues to treat her badly. Dédé intends to exploit Maurice's generosity and begins by selling his paintings. Convinced that his future is with Lulu, the naïve Maurice risks everything for his love. But then he discovers Lulu's cynical infidelity...
© 2012

Film Review

The French film director who responded most enthusiastically to the challenges of the transition from silent to sound cinema was Jean Renoir.
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In his silent films, Renoir had shown a consistent flair for innovation but few, if any, of these early works drew favourable critical attention and none was a commercial success. The director's fortunes were to show a dramatic change for the better when synchronised sound came along, transforming the art of filmmaking overnight. Naturally, it was the diehard experimentalists and young Turks like Renoir who benefited most from this development. Renoir's first sound film, On purge bébé (1931), a chaotic adaptation of a Feydeau farce, was to be his first box office hit. It was this unexpected success that gave Renoir considerable freedom on his next film, freedom that he exploited mercilessly.

Renoir's producers Pierre Braunberger and Roger Richebé were convinced that La Chienne, adapted from a lowbrow novel by Georges de La Fouchardière, would be a comedy in a similar vein to Renoir's previous film. Renoir refused to show them the rushes, or even the script, until the filming had been completed. When they saw what Renoir had given them - an anarchic mix of black comedy and social drama - the producers were so horrified that they locked him out of the editing suite. It was only after he had failed to come up with a satisfactory edit that Braunberger allowed Renoir back on board to complete the film. The result may not have impressed the critics at the time (many wrote it off as tawdry sensationalism) but it was very popular with the cinema-going public. The film proved to be hugely influential, not only in France, where it spawned poetic realism and early attempts at neo-realism, but also in America, laying the foundation for what we now know as classic film noir.

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La Chienne could easily have been a bog standard melodrama, of the kind that was all too prevalent in the late 1920s, early 30s. It contains all the familiar archetypes: the weak put-upon husband, the intolerant virago of a wife, the unfaithful mistress and the unscrupulous hoodlum. The story may not be overly original but Renoir takes it and delivers something that is fresh, vibrant and cinematographically daring. As the amusing puppet-show prologue to the film implies, the film does not easily fit into the well-defined genres of its time. It is neither a social drama, a melodrama nor a comedy. Rather, it is an undisciplined melange of genres, sometimes exquisitely funny, sometimes desperately bleak, but stylish and enthralling throughout.

La Chienne establishes a template for most of the films that Renoir would make in the 1930s, films in which the well-ordered world of the bourgeoisie is threatened by the forces of anarchy (base human passions, individuality and the longing for freedom). La Chienne challenged the expectations of audiences, bringing a heightened sense of reality to the fictional film narrative which would have a lasting and far-reaching impact. Whilst many other filmmakers of the early 1930s were content with turning out airless melodramas within the cosy confines of their soundstages, Renoir insisted on taking cinema out into the real world, to project onto the screen ordinary life as it is, sur le vif, not just an arid staged imitation. Still life was not for Renoir.

Renoir's mania for experimentation is apparent in almost every shot of La Chienne. The film is particularly noteworthy for its camerawork and its use of sound. One of the main technical challenges posed by early sound cinema was that directors were no longer able to use the large arc lamps that had been employed in the silent era. These lamps gave a huge depth of focus but they were too noisy and had to be replaced with less powerful substitutes. This is why in many early silent films there is hardly any motion: if the actors were to move, they would soon go out of focus. The more imaginative and artistically minded directors like Renoir were determined to regain some of the fluidity of silent films, and this they achieved by allowing the camera to move with the actors.

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In La Chienne, there are several scenes where the camera follows the actors around the set, almost clinging to them like an over-earnest autograph hunter, and this gives the film an unsettlingly voyeuristic feel. In addition to moving the camera, Renoir often alters the focus within a shot, so that our attention moves from the foreground to the background. The best example of this is the scene in Legrand's apartment where the focus moves away from Legrand being berated by his wife to a girl playing the piano in a room across the street, a neat way for Renoir to make a connection between two unrelated characters with artistic potential.

Renoir's use of sound is even more daring and, again, is a massive departure from what most other film directors were doing at the time, which was simply to record spoken dialogue. Renoir appears to be far more preoccupied with background sound than dialogue, and often the former masks the latter so that we can hardly make out what the characters are saying. There is a great deal of music in the film, but all of it is in the background, part of the cacophony of everyday life. In the crucial scene in which Legrand murders Lulu, the cries of the protagonists are drowned out by a popular tune sung by a street singer. This juxtaposition of ordinary life with high drama injects a shocking reality into the sequence and highlights the horror of Legrand's crime.

Whilst the main protagonists are easily recognisable as archetypes, they are all richly drawn and portrayed with surprising depth, and this also adds to the film's realism. Michel Simon's Legrand soon proves that he is far more than the mousy bank employee we first take him to be. There is clearly a cruel and sadistic streak to his character, which first becomes evident when he is confronted with his wife's first husband and sees an easy way out of his Hellish marriage. Having killed his mistress in a fit of jealousy, he appears to delight in the fact that her boyfriend will take the blame for the murder. Finally, destitute and jobless, the layers of artifice stripped away, Legrand shows who he really is, an egoistical free spirit who is a near relation of the carefree tramp that Simon would play in a later Renoir film, Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932). (Is it possible that Legrand and Boudu are one in the same man?)

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The two other main characters - the femme fatale Lulu and her loathsome pimp Dédé  - are also more complex than we might expect. Janie Marèze plays Lulu not as a calculating temptress (the more conventional film noir heroine) but as a compassionate innocent. There is no malice in her nature and she treats her two male admirers - Legrand and Dédé - more with maternal tenderness than the sultry attentions of a streetwalker. It pleases Legrand to spoil her, so naturally she takes what he gives her. Dédé derives a sadistic pleasure in ill-treating her, so she accepts this with equal insouciance. Lulu is an early example of the noble heroine that recurs throughout Renoir's oeuvre, a willing martyr to the unthinking savagery and selfishness of the male sex (the title La Chienne is clearly meant to be ironic). Other manifestations of Lulu include Séverine in La Bête humaine (1938) and Elsa in La Grande illusion (1937). It is worth noting that Janie Marèze was not Renoir's choice for the role of Lulu - she was imposed on him by the production team after the director had fallen out with his wife Catherine Hessling, the actress originally intended for the part. Renoir may not have been happy with the choice but Marèze is far better suited for the role than Hessling, whose heavy mannerisms and sudden changes of mood would have robbed Lulu of her almost saintly innocence and made her far less convincing as a victim.

Making his screen debut as the deliciously wicked Dédé is Georges Flamant, who was given the role (apparently) because Renoir knew of his criminal associations in real life. Both in his appearance and his behaviour, Flamant has the aura of a man who has had firsthand experience of Le Milieu (the underworld) and he is perfect for the part of Dédé, a man who casually brutalises women and threatens physical bodily harm in every glance he makes. After this remarkable debut, Flamant enjoyed some success as an actor, invariably playing taciturn anti-hero types, and ended up as Viviane Romance's first husband. Janie Marèze was not so fortunate - she died in a road accident not long after completing work on the film, in a car driven by Flamant. Michel Simon had fallen in love with the actress and blamed Renoir for her death, even threatening to kill him. This temporary rift led Renoir to shelve his plans to make a film version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with Simon cast as the indecisive Dane.

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In 1945, Fritz Lang remade La Chienne in Hollywood as Scarlet Street, with Edward G. Robinson taking the part originally played by Michel Simon. Whilst this later film is certainly a far more polished production, distinguished by some captivating performances and imaginative photography, it lacks the raw vitality and brutal realism that makes Renoir's film so authentic and emotionally involving. Whilst La Chienne would soon be overshadowed by the other great films that its director made in the same decade, there is no doubt that it represents something of a landmark in cinema. Its innovative touches would influence a whole generation of filmmakers, inspiring them to make the most of the opportunities afforded by sound cinema. More crucially, it helped French cinema to regain its badly beaten prestige, having succumbed to the might of the Hollywood moviemaking machine during the First World War. It is no exaggeration to say that synchronised sound saved France's film industry in the 1930s, and at least some of the credit for this cinematic renaissance should be attributed to Jean Renoir and his roughly hewn trailblazer La Chienne.
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The director Jean Renoir also worked with the actor Michel Simon on the films Tire au flanc (1928), On purge bébé (1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) and Tosca (1941).

Film Credits

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