La bête humaine was streamed recently on MUBI in the UK as part of a double bill with La grande illusion (1937). La grande illusion has been widely available in the UK for as long as I can remember but the later film has often been difficult to find. Why did I foolishly leave it so long to watch? Now I need to watch it again. I’ve discovered so many scholarly pieces on every aspect of the film and since I’ve now acquired a copy Human Desire (1954), Fritz Lang’s version of the same original Zola narrative, I want to compare the two. But that will have to wait. [It does seem that MUBI have opened their ‘Library’ and made past films available, so the Renoirs are there at the moment for subscribers, but I’m not sure for how long.]
If anyone is not aware of La bête humaine, I’ll just briefly introduce it here. There is a great deal written about the film and it is one of the best films by Jean Renoir, matching the achievements of both La grande illusion and La règle du jeu (1939). Renoir adapted Émile Zola’s novel of 1890, changing the setting from 1870 to the contemporary France of 1938 with the decline of the Popular Front and the coming of war. As many later commentators have pointed out, there is a parallel between Zola’s presentation of a story set at the point when France was rushing headlong into war with Germany and Renoir’s story set when another conflagration was looming (the film opened in December 1938). But this is a ‘personal’ story, centred on Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) an engine driver on the Paris-Le Havre expresses. Zola wrote a collection of 20 novels about an extended family, ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’, and Jacques Lantier is one of the family members whose mental illness leads him to commit violent acts. Zola believed such mental traits could be inherited. Renoir is making a single film so he keeps Lantier’s violence but limits the back story. He includes Zola’s statement about Jacques and Les Rougon-Macquart at the end of the opening credits sequence (which ends with an image and signature of Zola himself). Jacques’ violent urges are then discussed with his godmother who live in the Normandy countryside and then they become an issue when he meets a young woman he knows, Flore (Blanchette Brunoy), by the river in the same village.
The central action of the film involves the Le Havre station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his young wife Séverine (Simone Simon) who are involved in a murder on board a Paris-Le Havre train. Lantier is on the same train as a passenger and he sees the couple. Having already apparently fallen for Séverine he protects her when the police question the passengers. What will be the result of Jacques’ passion if it is allowed to develop? Will he kill Roubaud to free Séverine from a marriage in which she fears for her life? Around this seeming psychological crime thriller, Renoir develops a complex presentation which translates Zola’s naturalism into a form of cinematic realism.
There are all kinds of analysis and argument that develop from readings of the film. Some of the important political and social class issues that dominated French society in the late 1930s are perhaps not picked up so much in modern discussions. Conversely, the possible links to later American films noirs which were made in the 1970s are now to the fore. Both the earlier and the later arguments are explored in Raymond Durgnat’s Jean Renoir (University of California Press, 1974). I’ve also been reading Michèle Lagny’s ‘The Fleeing Gaze’, an essay on the film collected in French film: text and contexts, eds Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, (Routledge, 2000), Renoir’s own biography My Life and Films (1974) and Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay on the Criterion Collection website.
At this point I want to make just a few observations and leave a fuller consideration until later. First, I want to emphasise that for anyone who loves railways, this is one of the most exciting and informative railway films you are ever likely to see. SNCF, the state railway company (which had only just come into being bas a nationalised company), gave Renoir the same kind of support that enabled both La bataile du rail (1946) and The Train (1964) to deal with the railway in wartime. I believe there are other French films which also use the railways well but La bête humaine will take some beating as a presentation of an express railway. Paris Saint-Lazare to Le Havre was one of the earliest French railways built in the late 1840s covering 228 kms and in the film the expresses are hauled by 231 class Pacifics (4-6-2) built in the 1920s.
Jean Gabin was keen to make a railway feature and when a possible production of a train film for director Jean Grémillion fell through he turned to Renoir. Gabin was a major star who presumably had enough clout to to persuade producers to finance films. Renoir was keen to work with Gabin again after La grande illusion and he quickly adapted Zola’s story despite having not read it for 25 years. He tells us that he began to include more dialogue from the book and continued to revise the script during shooting. The important issue for Gabin was to learn all the actions of the engine driver and to experience life on the footplate with his fireman Pecqueux played by Carette. Renoir knew that the impact of the film depended on shooting ‘real’ footage of Gabin and Carette in the cab under steam. SNCF closed a section of track so that Gabin could operate the locomotive for some scenes and both the cinematographer Curt Courant and operator Claude Renoir Jr. were on the engine at times. It was dangerous work. Claude Renoir attached a camera to the side of the engine, but it came off in a tunnel. The film begins and ends with exciting sequences of Gabin and Carette in the cab of the speeding loco. I presume that an SNCF driver and fireman were on the footplate throughout these scenes. It must have been very crowded on there! Renoir tells us that they were running on 10 kms of track with a ‘platform truck’ coupled directly behind the engine and tender, carrying a generator for the lighting and behind that a single coach acting as a make-up and rest room for the actors. The photography across the whole film is excellent. I knew about Claude Renoir helping on his uncle’s films (he shot Toni, 1935) but Curt Courant was somebody I’ve somehow missed up until now. How I missed him, I’m not sure but he had a long pedigree. He began in Germany in 1917 and photographed over 140 films, mainly during the 1910s, 20s and 30s. La bête humaine was among the last ten films he shot. As a German Jew he was forced to flee from the Nazis and ended up in the UK eventually, but only shot a couple of films after 1940. He died in the US in 1968. He worked with Fritz Lang on Frau im Mond (1929) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). What happened to him? There is a story there. His style is evident in the low angle MCU at the top of this post. The cinematography is also supported in by the music of Joseph Kosma especially in the opening train sequence.
The opening in particular is almost documentary-like in its coverage. We see all the aspects of the railway that are usually ignored in fiction narratives. As the train approaches Le Havre we see the big signs welcoming us to the station, the engine sheds and the turntable and later the engine, which Jacques has christened ‘Lison’, being checked over and returned to the yard for maintenance. Earlier we had seen a demonstration of dropping the scoop to pick up water from the troughs on the track. This is all fascinating stuff if you love railways but is it necessary for the story? Perhaps not, but it all builds up a picture of Jacques’ life. The engine is like a character in the film and when he’s on board, the loco and Jacques are one.
La bête humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of an oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance . . .
. . . The setting of locomotives, railway sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry, or rather supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount of direction. (Jean Renoir from My Life and My Films, p 139)
I’m going to try and return to Renoir and to compare his film with Lang’s at some point. I’ve loved Renoir’s films for decades so it’s an on-going project. Thanks to MUBI for the chance to see La bête humaine.
There are plenty of films that feature train journeys, several where the whole narrative takes place on a train, but the number of films that combine an exciting narrative and involve every aspect of railway operation is very small. The Train not only fulfils those criteria but it is also brilliantly performed, photographed and directed. 1964 is around the peak period of ‘Hollywood in Europe’ when American money helped fund films that were both co-produced with European film industries and used European crews and actors. The film is an adaptation of a French memoir, Le front de l’art by Rose Valland. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the story of this remarkable woman. Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis wrote a screenplay loosely based on Valland’s book and several other writers also contributed. IMDb implies that the film may have had a separate French version, presumably dubbed as the dialogue is almost entirely in English with some German, despite the use of French actors.
The narrative deals with the short period in August 1944 when the German command in Paris realised that the Allies would reach the capital within days. Plans were quickly made to send armaments and men back to Germany by train despite the danger posed by Allied air attacks. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has his own plans to send to Germany the stolen artworks he has been guarding in a Paris Museum. Mlle. Millard (Suzanne Flon) who has catalogued all the works informs the Résistance, pleading that the train must be delayed but not damaged. She emphasises the importance of France’s ‘artistic heritage’. The man who has the skills to organise a complex résistance plan is Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the Paris ‘yardmaster’ and effective controller of the line. At first he is reluctant to risk the lives of résistance fighters and undercover workers as well as the ‘civilians’ who may be killed in reprisals. But eventually he is convinced by the argument and creates a highly complex plan that will involve dozens of railway workers across Northern France. I won’t spoil the clever tricks played on the German guards on the train.
This is a long film (133 mins) but the energy levels never drop and the film is spectacular in its use of landscape and railway infrastructure and locos etc. As long as younger audiences can get over the fact that it is in black and white and in the European ‘widescreen’ format of 1.66:1, everyone should enjoy the film – remember though that it is a résistance film and there are many deaths as well as victories for the rail workers. Director John Frankenheimer, though he emerged from US TV, initially as an actor, built a career which focused on large scale action pictures – often in a European setting. He also worked with Burt Lancaster on several films. Lancaster himself was a frequent visitor to Europe, making films in the UK and Italy as well as France. Paul Scofield offers a relatively early example of a Brit chosen to portray a Nazi Colonel with arrogance and an obsession about getting these artworks to Berlin. Elsewhere, however, the film offers us the great Michel Simon as an engine-driver close to retirement, Jeanne Moreau (as entrancing as always) as the proprietor of a ‘station hotel’ and Albert Rémy as Labiche’s right-hand man. The film is photographed by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz and music is by Michel Jarre.
I saw this film on release in 1964 and though I didn’t remember the details of the plot, I do remember the impact it made on me, sitting in the stalls of Blackpool’s cavernous 3,000 seat Odeon. It would be good to see it on the big screen again. Once you’ve seen it, you should also look out for René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (France 1946) which tells the story of the sabotage of the railways by résistance groups in a neo-realist style soon after the events themselves.
In the clip below, Labiche has managed to sabotage the train and halt it, but an Allied air raid is due and his men must paint the roofs of carriages white to warn the bombers not to destroy the paintings.
I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but I enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.
The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.
I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.
Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.
Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the train to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.
The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).
Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.
Bent Hamer is a well-known Norwegian writer-director whose earlier film Kitchen Stories (2003) was reviewed by Keith last year. I didn’t read Keith’s review at the time and in some ways I’m glad that I came to O’Horten in relative ignorance of Hamer’s approach. After the first ten minutes of the film I thought “this is going to be delightful”. The wonderfully named Odd Horten (impressively played by Bård Owe) is a 67 year-old train driver on his penultimate trip to Bergen and back from Oslo. When he returns his colleagues give him a dinner at which there are quizzes about railway sounds and he is presented with a ‘silver locomotive’ on a plinth. But when Odd is persuaded (against his usual instincts) to move on to a colleague’s apartment to continue the party, things start to wrong – so wrong in fact that he misses taking out his last train the following morning. What follows is a kind of journey of discovery.
O’Horten is described in most reviews as a comedy and I guess it is a comedy of sorts. Philip French suggests that it refers to the US genre of ‘retirement comedies’, best represented for him by About Schmidt. I think that the film certainly makes use of generic comedy elements, but I also found it quite disturbing at times – in the sense that I wasn’t quite sure where it was going (which is a good thing). I do think that there is a tendency for reviewers to take a 67 year-old bachelor who moves slowly and thinks carefully before acting as obviously quaint or ‘whimsical’. But there are several scenes which deny this. What is clear is that a snowy and deserted Oslo is as much a character in the film as Odd himself. It is a city with rather austere buildings, rain and snow on the streets and trams clanging round the corner. For a stretch in the film we appear to enter the world of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson. We see Odd in a bar (called ‘Valkyries’!) which is a dead ringer for an Andersson bar, except with less clientele but with a wonderfully morose waiter in a white coat that took me back 40 years to the pubs of my youth. There is a considered ‘old-fashionedness’ to much of the mise en scène, including Odd’s attachment to his pipe. A man at the urinal stall warns Odd that freezing rain is forecast very soon and we cut to Odd outside, clinging to a lamp-post as pedestrians and a motorcyclist slide down the hill on the ice. This blog refers to Hamer/Andersson’s approach as ‘European absurd realism’ which is quite neat.
The Andersson reference raises the question I hesitate to enunciate: is this what the international art film market (i.e. in North America) thinks a ‘Nordic/Scandinavian’ film must be like? I have to confess that it does conform to a kind of serio-comedy model and it includes, besides the fascination with trains, a central role for ski-jumping. My concern of course is that typing films in this way may get in the way of a broader understanding of Norwegian genre films like The Troll Hunter. Nevertheless, I enjoyed O’Horten and kudos for Channel 4 in screening it even if it was on at 01.45 am!