By Christopher Sharrett.
My title is a bit misleading, since Jean Renoir made a number of films in the silent era (none especially important to his reputation), and La Chienne (1931) is not even his first sound film – that falls to On purge bebe, made the same year as La Chienne. Both films are included in the new Criterion Collection release. On purge bebe, which struck me as lackluster, deserves revisiting, but our attention naturally goes to the legendary “The Bitch,” the English translation of Renoir’s title that doesn’t quite suggest the misogynist work we might anticipate. I say that Renoir “begins” with La Chienne since the film announces his great cycle of films critiquing sex and social class in the period between the two great wars, a cycle culminating in his supreme masterpiece La regle de jeu (1939).
The film concerns the sexual triad, in Renoir’s words “he, she, and the other guy.” As a violation of the heterosexual norm, the triad must necessarily end up badly, but Renoir’s profound humanism takes away the moralizing and despair of Fritz Lang’s very good remake, Scarlet Street (1945), whose very title evokes the legacy of Puritanism critiqued by Hawthorne. There is a blithe aspect to La Chienne, beginning with the little Guignol/Punch and Judy puppet show that is the prelude. The film looks on with both humor and wisdom at the folly of sexual passion, with its deceits, battles, and assorted psychopathologies, all in service of the pleasure of orgasm. La Chienne shares with films like The Blue Angel (1930) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) the idea of people misperceiving their roles in relationships, and enduring degradation for relationships that hardly even exist.
The plot of La Chienne is so familiar as to be archetypal: an aging clerk in an unhappy marriage saves a young prostitute from her brutal pimp (an encounter that has always struck me as implausible, but after all we are almost in the domain of myth), and the prostitute feigns affection for the much older man, who, flattered, begins an affair that compromises and finally ends his bourgeois respectability.
Michel Simon’s Maurice Legrand is the put-upon husband who works as a clerk to a small but prosperous company. Simon brings dignity to the part, creating a hunched, sad man who is also an aesthete; he is an invert (termed a “wet blanket” by his colleagues), but not Edward G. Robinson’s sucker-in-waiting in Scarlet Street. The two characters can be handily contrasted by observing the banquet scenes that open both films. The banquet of Scarlet Street is a testimonial for the boss, but it turns into a celebration of dedicated wage slave Christopher Cross (the name a contrivance for the intersecting lines of fate). Cross is given an engraved watch by the boss who praises his service in a ritual that is transparently strained (it always reminds me of the “hearty handshake” given W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick ), yet taken seriously. The banquet in La Chienne has little to do with Legrand; his tuxedoed self sits at the table’s last seat. He is lost in his thoughts, from which he is distracted by the various bloviations and side-chatter. He is both fool and perfect human being – his surname both mocks him and honors his lack of guile, guile being a characteristic of almost everyone in his world.
Adele (Magdeleine Berubet) is the absolute shrew, rendered by the actor and Renoir with hyperbole. Her contempt for her husband’s amateur painting marks her as petit-bourgeois or less; she is one of the lumpenized elements of France that loves to follow authority (we can imagine her siding with Vichy). She praises her dead husband who fell in battle for king and country (she is deluded on this score) while Legrand stayed home with his paintings, a topic that is the wife’s castration blade. The marriage makes one think at last not so much about the hen-pecked husband (a myth of reactionary gender politics) than power relations at large, and how they become manifest in the sexual union. More important, the Legrand-Adele relationship reveals less the dominant woman/passive man than the transformation of the married couple into mother and child, an all too familiar deformation of the heterosexual relationship, just as Legrand’s relationship to the prostitute Lulu (Janie Marese) is one of bemused father and provocative, scheming daughter, offering a most volatile threat to the incest taboo.
Yet the film has an innocent aura, including the scheme of Lulu’s pimp Dede (Georges Flamant) to defraud Legrand, selling his paintings under a pseudonym. While the film is credited with bringing German Expressionism to French cinema and thus another step toward film noir, the film is notable for its sense of stillness, the quiet of the Parisian streets save for the appearance of strolling musicians. Renoir conveys a civil society made turbulent by lust and sexual delusion. But La Chienne is emphatically not The Blue Angel. There is no Expressionist sturm und drang here, even as Dede is awakened in his jail cell to be taken to the gallows – his handsome face is bathed in a beatific light, although it is a quick shot, conveying a fate sealed. Legrand ends up on the street a homeless vagabond, but he is able to chuckle and give an existentialist shrug to his fate, in contrast to the last scene in Scarlett Street, with Cross alone in a black, uncaring universe, harassed by cops as he sleeps on a park bench, then shuffling down a street, haunted by voices as he is reminded of fortune and identity lost. Lang’s interpretation of Renoir has much value: it reflects a world just coming out of catastrophe, its images containing the same dour world view that inaugurated the Weimar cinema.
Renoir’s great humanism is never naïve, but he is accepting of the human condition, even as he critiques the bankrupt class system. The brutal punishment meted out to Lulu might be seen as the logical consequence for the female within patriarchal sexual dynamics unquestioned, even unrecognized. As I write this, the multi-part documentary OJ: Made in America is being shown on ESPN. O.J. Simpson’s horrid slaughter of his wife makes the archetype contemporary, as the male, deprived of his sexual property, can only destroy the female and ultimately himself.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.