May 9, 2017
The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA. It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.
According to Renoir, he was only allowed to make La Chienne, his second sound film, after he could prove that he could work quickly and under budget. So he was assigned to adapt the Georges Feydeau comedy On purge bébé (1931), which he wrote, directed and edited in three weeks. His producers Pierre Braunberger and Roger Richebé formed the production company Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé in 1930. Braunberger was a longtime friend who had worked with Renoir since Whirlpool of Fate in 1925. It was reportedly Richebé who asked Renoir to use On purge bébé as a test for La Chienne, though Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau could not find anything to support Renoir and Branuberger’s claims to that effect. In any case On purge bébé was made very quickly, but though Renoir dismisses it as a commercial job, it is really quite funny, especially if you are interested in Michel Simon reaction shots after he accidentally swallows some laxatives. And it is here he begins his collaboration with sound engineer Joseph de Bretagne, which continued through The Golden Coach in 1952. Renoir was insistent in recording sound live instead of in post, and On purge bébé was infamous for its toilet flushing sound. Renoir wrote: “In my concern for realism, I used the flush of a real toilet in the studio. The result produced the sound of a cataract that thrilled the production representatives and elevated me to the level of a great man.”
Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé announced that they acquired the rights to Georges de La Fouchardiere’s La Chienne on April 11, 1931. Renoir adapted the script himself and directed the film. There is some question as to whether the film was reedited by the producers, but Renoir claimed he got the cut he wanted, and Merigeau concluded that it “was probably edited by Renoir and Marguerite [Renoir], then by Denis Batcheff under the direction of Paul Fejos.” The film concerns Maurice Legrand (Simon), a passive weak-chinned cashier at a women’s hosiery factory who paints as a hobby. A masterfully fastidious performance by Simon, his Maurice is little more than a recessive nasal murmur, a man who speaks not to be heard but to get quicker into silences. He is married to Adèle (Madeleine Berubet), a demanding shrew who is endlessly comparing Maurice to her first husband, who died in WWI. Coming home from an office party, Maurice stumbles into a spat between Lulu (Marèse) and her pimp Dédé (Flamant). (In a tragic footnote, soon after filming Marèse would die in a crash, in a car that Flamant was driving.) Thinking that he is being gallant, he knocks Dédé over and escorts Lulu home. To seem more interesting, Maurice tells Lulu that he is a painter. Dédé encourages Lulu to cultivate that relationship and leech him of money, thinking he is a famous artist in America. Needing some quick cash, Dédé steals a couple of unsigned canvases and invents an artist to assign it to: “Clara Wood.” Clara Wood becomes an in-demand artist, and Lulu takes on the role. Maurice is flattered that his art is getting attention, and pleased it’s generating income for Lulu. Temporarily, all parties get their ego stroked. But then Maurice miraculously is freed of his marital bonds, and sheepishly asks Lulu to marry him. She can playact no longer, and laughs in his face. It is the end of their “selfless” performances, and the reveal of their truest selves.
The Guignol puppet at the beginning of the film declares, “The play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy. It contains no moral message, and has nothing to prove. The characters are neither heroes nor villains. They’re plain folk like you or me,” implicating the viewer in the tonal shifts to come, for the film is focalized through Maurice, a typically sympathetic lead character. But as the film progresses he reveals depths of insecurity beyond even Dédé, a man who slaps Lulu around out of boredom. But the wonder of the film is that it never sits in judgment; even the most heinous actions occur due to the convergence of personality and circumstance, and Renoir’s camera keeps its distance, peeking through curtains or café windows. This framing is remote, almost aloof. As Bazin wrote, “There is a deliberate attempt here to use a frame within the frame to underline the importance of all that lies beyond the screen.” As this petty drama unfolds, there are others behind and at all sides of the camera, just out of view.
The last few sequences evade language, and invite cliché. They take place years later, with Maurice reduced to vagrancy and homelessness, and yet still capable of his pinched smile. He wishes for his own death and yet opines that “life is beautiful” as one of his old “Clara Wood” canvases is sold to a wealthy buyer. The ending is brutally ironic and entirely sincere. Maurice has erased himself from society while his work is sold under an imaginary name. But he gets a tip for opening a car door, enough to buy a hot meal, and that, at least temporarily, is a beautiful thing.